Celestina arrives at Millbank Prison: a Christmas tale pt 21

Celestina Sommer’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life on 22 April 1856. Because she was still waiting for her sentence to be carried out, she was taken back to Newgate Prison (which was a ‘detentional’ prison, only used for debtors and for those awaiting trial, death or transportation).

CS transportation cropShe was under the category of ‘Prisoners whose Judgments have been respited or from Various Causes remain in Custody from time to time Brought into Court for Trial or Otherwise. Usually called Prisoners upon Orders’ (London Lives).

However Newgate would soon fill up again with prisoners awaiting their own trials and there was now a second ‘holding’ option for women convicts: Millbank Prison, where they could be accommodated for much longer stretches. And that’s where Celestina and the two other convicted murderers, Elizabeth Ann Harris and Mary Ann Alice Seago, were sent in the next few months.

Map showing Millbank Prison, London

Map showing Millbank Prison, near Vauxhall Bridge

‘Every male and female convict sentenced to transportation in Great Britain is sent to Millbank previous to the sentence being executed. Here they remain about three months under the close inspection of the three inspectors of the prison, at the end of which time the inspectors report to the Home Secretary, and recommend the place of transportation,’ wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London, published in 1850.

This is where you’d expect me to start on another story of a convict transported to Australia, like many of my posts. But Celestina’s sentence and the identical sentences of the other two women  were changed again, to penal servitude for life.

Life imprisonment, to be served in Britain.

This intrigued me. One of my convict ancestors, Nicholas Delaney, had his sentence changed from death to penal service overseas (pretty much a death sentence) and then to transportation. But that was over 50 years before, when there were too many in prison and sending them to Australia was seen as the solution. So why would the authorities prefer imprisonment in Britain to transportation – a complete reversal of policy – in 1856?

One reason seems to have been that those Aussies were getting all uppity about having convicts sent over. They’d got it into their heads that they’d had enough of them, thanks, and anyway there were now enough people to do the work that was needed, so don’t send any more. Only Western Australia, proclaimed a penal colony in 1849, needed the labour.

Hougoumont, the last convict ship sent to Australia. Old photo

The convict ship Hougoumont

Meanwhile Mother England was reconsidering the cost of sending her dregs overseas when there were plenty of people ready to go to Australia and pay their own passage, or have it paid for them (like some of my other ancestors). Transportation didn’t reform the convicts, and the threat of it hadn’t lowered the crime rate. It had been a useful experiment, but now it wasn’t working.

Very few people, in fact, were in favour of transportation by the time Celestina was sentenced.

Indeed, in 1853, the Penal Servitude Act had ordered that only long-term transportation would continue and, four years later, the 1857 Penal Servitude Act ended it, in theory at least. Prisoners were transported for another 10 years, with the last convict ship, the Hougoumont, arriving in 1868.

During my research I noticed that the last four ships to take women convicts to Australia had sailed in 1852, with the very last, Midlothian, carrying just 18 convicts from Ireland, arriving in February 1853. So it looks as if there was very little chance of Celestina ever being transported.

Plan of Millbank Prison, showing the six separate wings

Plan of Millbank Prison *

Built as a panopticon, reformer Jeremy Bentham‘s design for a prison where all (convicts) could be seen (by their gaolers), Millbank Penitentiary opened in 1816. It closed in 1890 and Tate Britain now stands on part of its 16-acre former site.

Millbank seems to have acted as a holding house for convicts waiting for places to become available on the ships and also in other prisons. As Henry Mayhew and John Binny wrote in The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life in 1862, ‘The female prison here is to Brixton what the male prison is to Pentonville – a kind of depot to which the convicts are forwarded as vacancies occur.’

They elaborated: ‘Males and females of all ages are received here, the prison being the depot for convicts of every description. When a man [or woman, my note] is convicted, and sentenced either to transportation or penal servitude, he remains in the prison in which he was confined previous to his trial, until such time as the order of the Secretary of State is forwarded for his removal; and he is then transferred to us… From this prison he is, after a time, removed to some “probationary” prison (to undergo a certain term of separate confinement) such as that at Pentonville…’ or, in the case of women, to Brixton Prison.

And in Millbank Prison Celestina would begin her next period of waiting.

Millbank Prison from the Thames; old engraving

Millbank Prison from the Thames

The papers went quiet about what was happening to her after her transfer to Millbank was reported on 18 August, 1856, in the London Standard.

That doesn’t mean that they stopped talking about her. In fact her case became iconic in the debate about capital punishment, and she was referred to in both Houses of Parliament. But that’s (at least) a whole post in itself and I have a feeling that you want to get to the end of the story fairly soon. Let me know if you want more about the death penalty debate and I’ll come up with something.

Back to Celestina and Millbank Penitentiary. It was a less terrible place to be imprisoned than Newgate – though it was hard to find more feared prisons than ‘Hell above ground‘.

From the outside, it wasn’t as forbidding as Newgate, but it was still obviously a building meant to stop people getting out (or in) and to be a reminder of what fate waited a criminal.

Millbank Prison, the outer lodge entrance

Millbank Prison, outer lodge *

There was one entrance to the prison, facing the Thames. Seen from the river, it looked like a castle from the Middle Ages, with its high walls and watchtowers.

Contemporary writers noted that Millbank was even surrounded by an old moat, now filled in and grazed by cows.

The castle-like impression would have been reinforced for Celestina as she approached the outer lodge, with its huge doors. These were opened by an official wearing a ‘half-police-half-coast-guard kind of uniform’, Mayhew and Binny reported. (From now on, any unattributed quotations will be from their book.)

‘Hence we were directed across the long wedge-shaped “outer yard” of the prison – a mere triangular slip, or “tongue,” as it is called, of bare, gravelled ground, between the diverging sides of the first and last pentagons; and so we reached the barred “inner gate,” set, within a narrow archway at the apex, as it were, of the yard. Here the duty of the gate-keeper is to keep a list of all persons entering and quitting the prison.

‘After unlocking a “double-shotted” door, the warder, under whose charge we had been placed, conducted us into a long, lofty passage, like that of a narrow cloister, or rude whitewashed box-lobby to a theatre. On the right, higher than we could conveniently see, were the exterior windows of the pentagon; on the left, the doors of the apparently infinite series of cells.

‘These doors are double, the inner one being of wood and the outer one of iron lattice- work or “cross-bars.”

Millbank Prison flank gates (inside the prison)

Millbank Prison ‘flank’ gates *

‘Every ward consists of two passages or sides of the several pentagons, and ranged along each passage are fifteen cells. The passages are fifty yards long, about ten feet high, and about seven wide, and all of equal size. They are paved and coloured white…

‘Each cell is about twelve feet long by seven broad… The inner door is left open in the day time from nine till five, so that all semblance of a communication with the world may not be taken away from the inmate. At night, however, or upon any misconduct on the part of the prisoner, the inner door is closed or “bolted up,” as it is termed; nevertheless, [s]he can be seen by the jailer through a small vertical slit in the wall-like that of a perpendicular letter-box.’

Celestina was taken to the third of the six pentagons, the one where women prisoners were kept. It was ‘quite shut off from the others, and opened with a separate key.’

Plan of the women's pentagon at Millbank Prison

The women’s pentagon at Millbank *

It was ‘of slighter construction; though this is a compliment to the sex which unfortunately they have failed to justify, as the female convicts throughout the prison are pronounced “fifty times more troublesome than the men.” The grated iron gates are less massive.’

There are different views in academic writings about whether women prisoners were really worse-behaved than men. Some say that disruptive behaviour was to be expected in a system designed by, and for, men, and which didn’t work for women; others reckon that convict women were seen as worse, because they’d failed to live up to the image of the ‘angel in the house‘, meek, obedient, almost asexual. It’s a familiar picture to anyone who’s looked at early Australian colonial history.

I’ll come back to badly-behaved women in a later post. Let’s get Celestina locked up first.

The third pentagon – the women’s prison – was divided into wards.  Celestina would have been taken to B ward, the ‘first probation ward’, for women in their first months of detention.

Millbank Prison's rules for the 'probation class' of women convicts

Millbank: rules for the ‘probation class’ *

‘The convicts pick coir for the first two months, and, if well-behaved for that time, they are then put to needlework. Their door is bolted up for the first four months of their incarceration.’

This was one of the principles of the ‘separate system’, where (unlike at Newgate) convicts slept, ate and worked in their cell and were allowed no contact with other prisoners.

Picking coir was similar to the better-known oakum-picking, a boring, difficult job. Oakum was made by unravelling old ropes and picking out the individual strands, which would be used to caulk the seams of boats. Coir, also probably taken from old ropes, was unpicked to make mats or as stuffing for beds – you can still get mattresses with a coir layer in them.

‘Here we find the inner wooden doors thrown back. “These women have all been here less than three months,” adds the principal matron. ” Such as you have already seen at needlework have been here over two months, and those that have coir to pick have been in less than two months.”

Woman convict at Millbank Prison

Millbank prisoner *

‘As we pass, the convicts all jump up and curtsey – some of them bobbing two or three times. All wear the close white prison cap. Some are pretty, and others coarse-featured women; many of them are impudent-looking, and curl their lip, and stare at us as we go by.’

What did Celestina look like in her Millbank prison clothing? Mayhew and Binny mention her white cap. But what about her hair? It was cut off: ‘”Oh, yes, they’d sooner lose their lives than their hair!” said the warder, in answer to our question as to whether the females were cropped upon entering the prison. “We do not allow them to send locks of the hair cut off to their sweethearts; locks, however, are generally sent to their children, or sisters, or mother, or father…”‘

Presumably the woman in the illustration to the right had been incarcerated long enough to regrow her hair.

It was ‘a trial that is always the hardest to bear’, said FW Robinson, a man writing as ‘a prison matron’, in Female Life in Prison.

‘Women whose hearts have not quailed, perhaps, at the murder of their infants, or the poisoning of their husbands, clasp their hands in horror at this sacrifice of their natural adornment – weep, beg, pray, occasionally assume a defiant attitude, resist to the last, and are finally overcome only by force. It is one of the most painful tasks of the prison…’

The horror women convicts felt at having their hair cut off is a thread running through criminal history. It may have been useful, getting rid of nits and lice as well as identifying potential escapees. But above all it was humiliating, defeminising and long-lasting – think of those flowing Victorian tresses, which would take years to grow. Celestina, so pretty and well-dressed, would have felt this as a terrible blow.

Her clothes were taken away and she was given standard Millbank slops (prison clothes): a ‘dark claret-brown’ dress, a check apron, a grey bonnet and, presumably, shifts and any other underclothes.

Then the door was slammed and locked, and Celestina Sommer began life as a convict in Millbank Prison.

Further reading:
A Concise View of the Origin and Progress of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, downloadable ebook
Victorians Against the Gallows, James Gregory, 2012
Memorials of Millbank, Arthur Griffiths, 1884
The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life, Henry Mayhew and John Binny, 1862
Female life in prison, by a prison matron, Vol 1, Frederick William Robinson, 1863
Victorian London

* Picture credits:
Prisoners on orders: findmypast
Map of Millbank Prison: Stanford’s library map of London and its suburbs
Plan of Millbank Penitentiary: Wikipedia
Convict ship Hougoumont, Millbank from the Thames: public domain
Millbank Prison outer lodge, flank gates: Memorials of Millbank
Millbank rules and prisoner: The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20


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Five years of genealogy blogging

It’s my fifth blogiversary this week. I can hardly believe I’ve been geneablogging for five years!

Hand showing five fingers

So much has changed since then. I started out posting so that I could add new information which wasn’t available when my mother and I wrote a book about our ancestor, Nicholas Delaney, the Irish rebel and Australian convict who built some of New South Wales’s first roads and settled down as a respectable farmer.

Then my genealogy research expanded and so did the blog, taking in more convict ancestors, John Simpson and Sarah Marshall. My post about her grave is still the most visited one.

I branched out again to my last convict James Thomas Richards, a Thames waterman who robbed a pub.

Then my mum Patricia, my genealogy inspiration, died. I could have given up, without having her to share my discoveries with. A big part of the joy of genealogy had been  hearing her thoughts on new insights.

Geneabloggers are wonderful

But I wasn’t alone – the genealogy community was out there and they rallied round.

The best thing about blogging has been the people I’ve met, online and in person. Geneabloggers are wonderfully generous and supportive. And they – you – inspired me to go on. Thank you.

Victorian murder

I went hunting for James Richards’ wife, Rebecca Harrington. I missed being able to tell Mum about that. And Rebecca’s mother, Julia Harrington, led me to a Victorian murder which I’ve been blogging about this year.

That was an experiment, and I didn’t think it would go on as long as it has, but I found more and more fascinating stuff I just had to write about. And I ‘met’ some great historians online as I was researching Celestina Sommer, born Christmas.

I’d like to apologise for the long delay since my last post. A combination of dying laptop, long wait for new PC, broadband troubles and working more hours took me away, but it’s time to give this blog a bit of birthday love and care.

What would you like to read?

So what next? I’d love to hear from you. Would you like more of the social history type posts, like the ones about Celestina? Or do you prefer more family history ones? And I’ve neglected my other ancestors on this blog – the Owens, Lloyds, Davieses, all from Wales. Is it time for Welsh geneablogging?

What do you think?

Image of hand by woodleywonderworks * CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia, slightly cropped


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Will Celestina hang? A Christmas tale pt 20

Celestina Sommer had been sentenced to death for the murder of her daughter, Celestina Christmas. On Thursday, 10 April, 1856, she was taken back to Newgate Prison, which was used only for prisoners awaiting trial, execution or transportation.

Celestina's death sentence

At the top of this page from the returns of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the only two women and the only two death sentences – Celestina’s, and that of Elizabeth Ann Harris, who killed two of her own children. This wasn’t to be the last time their names were linked.

Celestina's death sentence - prited

Here’s the printed version, with Elizabeth Harris and Celestina at the top again, plus some extra information, including the costs of the prosecution (£31.4.6d, in Celestina’s case), the number of witnesses (11), whether the defendant could read or write, and the details of their offence.

Celestina was taken straight from her trial at the Old Bailey back to Newgate Prison, as Elizabeth (who was tried the day before, 9 April) had been. There they were held in ‘separate rooms on the female side of the prison’, most newspapers reported. The Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, though, had them both put in ‘the condemned cell’, but this could just have been incorrect information.

The Morning Chronicle, a London newspaper which had employed writers such as Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, William Hazlitt and John Stuart Mill, elaborated on the two women’s living conditions:

Morning Chronicle article about Celestina in Newgate

The turnkey and the woman who sat up at night would presumably have been there to make sure that they didn’t ‘cheat the gallows’ and kill themselves. Still, this description paints a picture of humane treatment which contrasts strongly with conditions for the prisoners waiting for trial or transportation as opposed to death.

Celestina and Elizabeth’s spiritual wellbeing was also looked after. The Chronicle continued:

Ngt news 5

John Davis, the Ordinary (chaplain) of Newgate, had many duties, including, not surprisingly, providing condemned prisoners with spiritual care – or at least those who were Anglicans. He also conducted the services in the chapel, and attended prisoners on the scaffold.

Catherine Frazer, the ‘benevolent lady’, was a former colleague of Elizabeth Fry (who died in 1845) and a long-standing member of the British Ladies’ Society for Female Prisoners. As well as visiting prisoners, she occasionally petitioned for mercy in cases which she thought deserving.

Elizabeth Fry reading to women at Newgate PrisonElizabeth Fry had been visiting women in Newgate and, later, other prisons since 1813 and had made many improvements to their lives. The engraving shown here, produced in the 1860s but purporting to show her reading to prisoners in 1816, looks at first fairly sentimentalised. But not all the women are listening with regret and humility; some are hiding playing cards or bottles of booze. There’s a great post which discusses this image, and the issues of women prisoners and prison reform, here.

Whether or not Celestina had been affected by Catherine Frazer’s ‘religious exhortations’, her mental state was bad, as the Taunton Courier reported:

Celestina and Elizabeth in a bad way in prison


I have to feel sorry for Elizabeth Harris, racked by guilt, sentenced to die, and about to have her new baby taken from her.

Celestina, meanwhile, appeared to be stupefied. Other reports, though have something to say about her thoughts at the time. Here’s the Sheffield Daily Telegraph:

Celestina thinks she'll be set free: newspaper report

Even after her trial and the guilty verdict and the sentence of death she was still clinging onto her hope of being set free after a few months in an asylum – a belief which may have been one of the reasons she committed the murder in the first place.

Newgate prison cell where Elizabeth Fry is said to have read to prisoners

Newgate cell where Elizabeth Fry is said to have read to prisoners *

But the prison authorities, and their medical officer, weren’t convinced that this was a sign of her being ‘in any way deranged’. Things looked bad for Celestina.

Murderers were usually hung on a Monday, and two Sundays had to pass between sentence and death, so her execution was ‘definitely fixed’ for 28 April, the Illustrated Times reported. That gave her 18 days left to live after her trial.

Unless… As many of the papers pointed out, it had been many years since a woman had been hanged at Newgate. She was Martha Browning, who murdered her mistress, Elizabeth Mundell, for a £5 note – which turned out to be a fake,  a ‘flash’ Bank of Elegance note used in advertising. Martha was executed in January 1846, just over ten years earlier.

So hanging a woman – two women, in fact, with Elizabeth Harris also sentenced to death – outside Newgate Prison would be something of a novelty. It would excite a great deal of interest, not least from people opposed to public executions, or to the death sentence itself. And hanging women was considered distasteful to even those who could accept the public hanging of men.

And so, the Chronicle said on 14 April,

Morning Chronicle report about a petition for commuting the death sentence on Celestina

Who was involved in trying to get Celestina and Elizabeth’s death sentences commuted? Once again, Quaker women were involved. Catherine Frazer played her part, as the Illustrated Times reported:

Celestina and Elizabeth repentA cynic might think that it wasn’t very surprising that the woman were ‘anxious… to obtain pardon’. But after decades of prison visiting, Miss Frazer could probably tell when her audience was faking.

Maria Allen, another Quaker, sent a petition to the Home Office from Wantage on behalf of Elizabeth and Celestina. George Gray, also a Friend, wrote from Glasgow. And the ‘ladies’ of Stockton-on-Tees petitioned, saying that they couldn’t argue for commutation for the child-killers except from the women’s ‘low moral sense and slight feeling of moral accountability’, but added their arguments against all capital punishment.

As the Dorset County Chronicle reported on 24 April:

Petitions sent to the government for Celestina

And on 26 April, the Illustrated Times told its readers:

A petition on behalf of Celestina by the solicitor Mr HumphreysThis Mr Humphreys was probably William Corne Humphreys, whose office was near the Old Bailey in Newgate Street. He doesn’t seem to have been mentioned before in the documents regarding her case.

Celestina’s repeated story that she killed her daughter because her husband Charles treated her badly ‘on account of the child’ and she thought he’d be kinder to her if she ‘destroy[ed] it’ is chilling. Though whether it was what she really believed is anyone’s guess.

There were some other sinister reports in the papers. Here’s the Morning Chronicle:

Celestina Christmas's father?

Presumably this refers to Celestina’s assertion that her brother was the father, though I can’t help wishing that it had been more ‘necessary more particularly to allude to’ it more specifically.

But back to the petitions. The Illustrated Times must have gone to press before the next important development in Celestina’s story. By Friday, 26 April, the papers were reporting that on the afternoon of Tuesday 22 that the Sheriffs of Newgate, who set the dates for condemned prisoners’ executions, ‘received information from the Secretary of State for the Home Department that Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to grant a respite during Royal pleasure to the two wretched women…’

In other accounts, Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, told Mr Wetherhead, Governor of Newgate, that the two women’s death sentences were to be respited. In all events, the Sheriffs and John Davis, the Ordinary, went to their cells and told them the news. The Huddersfield Chronicle says that they, especially Elizabeth Ann Harris, ‘received the tidings with earnest thankfulness’. As well they might. Celestina’s lack of enthusiasm, given her belief that she wouldn’t hang, seems odd. Perhaps it’s an indication of her state of mind.

By the 28th, the newspapers added that the ‘wretched women’ were to be transported for life.

As you might expect, there were still to be more twists in the tale…

Further reading:
A Concise View of the Origin and Progress of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, downloadable ebook
Victorians Against the Gallows, James Gregory, 2012

* Picture credits:
OB Proceedings recording death sentence (written): Findmypast
OB Proceedings recording death sentence (printed): Ancestry
Elizabeth Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate (1860s print): Martin Poulter via Wikimedia
Newgate prison cell where Elizabeth Fry is said to have read to women prisoners, photo before 1902: via Heritage Explorer
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19


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Broadside ballads about Celestina: a Christmas tale pt 19

As Celestina Sommer and two other equally notorious women waited for death in Newgate Prison‘s condemned cell in April 1856, two sets of people got busy. Some were gathering evidence and support to petition for her to be reprieved. I’ll come back to this part of the story soon.

Broadsheet seller, British LibraryOthers, though, would have been delighted to see her hang, and not on moral grounds. These were the printers and sellers of broadsides, the cheaply printed, one-page scandal sheets sold on the streets. Part titillation, part shocker, they were the nineteenth century equivalent of our red-top tabloid newspapers.

Their speciality was printing (often made up) last words and confessions of criminals to be sold on the day they were hung to the crowds gathered to watch the execution – or to those who hadn’t been lucky enough to get to the show.

Broadsides also contained details of the trials of murders (almost always ‘horrid’, ‘inhuman’, ‘cruel’ or ‘barbarous’) and/or a ‘copy of verses’ detailing the crime, the lamentation of the criminal, or a lesson by example to young men, maidens or other susceptible groups.

Execution of Frederick and Maria Manning, British Library

Execution of the Mannings, with ‘inserted’ woman *

While the broadside printers were, no doubt, getting the stock woodcut of a hanging ready for their ‘dying confession of the Islington murderess’ edition, they were canny enough to gather in a few pennies with what they had already. So in this post I’m moving from newspapers and official reports to, quite literally, the word on the street about Celestina Sommer.

I’ve found three different broadsides with versions of Celestina’s murder of her daughter.

The first is a retelling in verse of the details publicly known from her trials, plus an invented judge’s pronouncement and a stock warning to ‘young females’ to remain virtuous. Here are some extracts, keeping the original spelling and punctuation as far as possible. The illustration has nothing to do with the story; it’s probably just to use up space. You can see the original here.

The Islington Tragedy

Bdside 2‘A warning take by my sad fate,
In Newgate Cell I now do lie,
For murdering of my own dear child,
My time is short I soon must die
My guilty heart can take no rest,
That deed of blood still in my mind,
How could I kill me daughter dear,
Who never spoke one word unkind

‘But guilt and fear it tempted me.
To murder and conceal the same,
I thought I would be free from her,
And no one then would know my shame…

‘I’m frighted at this dismal place,
Oh mother dear why bring me here,
I will not harm you I did say,
Come on my dear you need not fear.
I took her to the cellar there,
The child all trembling looked around,
I thought no one this deed would see,
I thought her dead upon the ground,

‘Oh mother dear don’t murder me,
Oh let me go I’ll cry no more,
I cut her throat from ear to ear,
I left her weltering in her gore
My gown with blood was sprinkled o’er
I took and put another on,
I washed myself and then did wait,
Until my husband did return…

‘They searched the cellar, there they found
Her lifeless body lying there,
Enough to melt a heart of stone,
For who could fail to shed a tear,
I taken was, to trial sent,
The judge pronounced my dreadful doom,
Celestia Somner you must die,
And in the midst of youth and bloom…

‘Now all young females standing round,
Let virtue guide you on your way
O think upon her awfull death,
And from good actions never stray,
But oh! how soon you might be caught
If tempted to commit that sin,
Which was the cause of her downfall
How happy she might still have been.’

Broadside detail: a woman opens a door into a dark roomNext is a more flowery yet lurid version, again told from the viewpoint of ‘Celestia’. All three broadsides mis-spell her name in the same way, which suggests that they got their copy from the same source – or copied the first sheet to be published. The illustration is probably one used for various broadsides. The metre suggests that it may have been written to be sung to a popular tune. Here are some of the verses:

Lamentation of Celestia Somner

‘You tender parents list to me,
High and low of all degree,
Oh what a dreadful sight to see,
A female in her bloom,
Condemned to die, on a tree so high,
For killing of her darling child,
Who in her murderer’s face did smile
And in a very little while,
The gallows is my doom.

‘Celestia Somner is my name,
Borne down with sorrow grief & shame
I do confess I was to blame
My daughter dear to kill,
That lovely child did sweetly smile,
And said as she beheld the knife,
Upon that sad and fatal night.
Mother dear don’t take my life,
My innocent blood don’t spill,

Broadside: Lamentation of Celestia Somner‘Mother dear she kindly said,
That innocent sweet little maid
Mother I don’t feel afraid.
This dark and dismal night.
Her dying groans would pierce a stone
I seized the sharp and deadly knife
And took my tender daughter’s life,
Upon a fateful Saturday night
When we were both alone.

‘To kill my child I did engage,
My little dear ten years of age,
A pretty pratling darling maid
Mine and my brother’s child.
A wretch distressed I must confess
I am as all the world may see,
Before me stands the fatal tree,
And my darling’s spirit haunting me.
Oh I am almost wild…

‘Oh you tender mother’s dear,
When my dreadful fate you hear,
Can you for me shed a tear
I know you will say no.
I am doomed to go to the shades below
No one on earth will sorry be,
No pity for a wretch like me,
Exposed upon the fatal tree,
A sad and awful sight.

‘I am a wretch trembling with fear,
My end alas is drawing near,
How could I kill my little dear,
My sweet and darling child,
My glass is run, my time has come,
Mark the solemn bell doth toll,
On the moments swiftly roll.
Oh Lord have mercy on the soul
Of a cruel murderess base.’

You’ll notice that the balladeer says that little Celestina was ‘mine and my brother’s child’. Extra scandal, revealed at the second trial at Clerkenwell Police Court.

Portrait of Celestina Sommer ('Celestia Somner') from a broadsideThe third broadside is my favourite, so I’ve saved it till last. I like it because it’s got the nearest we’ll ever come to a portrait of Celestina Sommer (as far as I can tell), even though it may not actually be of her.

What we know about Celestina’s appearance is that she was very small and looked like a young girl; she was fair-skinned and pretty; her hair, ‘somewhat inclining to red‘, was ‘tastefully banded over her ears‘ (perhaps as in the 1850s photographs here); she dressed fashionably, as suited her position in society.

I also like the way this broadside combines a copy of verses, a picture, and a reprint of the newspaper reports about Celestina’s trial. Here are some of the verses, which were to be sung to the tune of Just before the Battle, an American Civil War song which had become popular in Britain. If you fancy a sing-song, there are some versions of it here. The online image is badly distorted, but here’s my best shot:

Full Particulars of the Trial & Sentence of Celestia Somner

‘Oh list you dear and tender mothers,
Old and young of each degree
Of dreadful murders here’s another,
The Islington tragedy.
There lived a wretch Celestia Somner,
A monster in a human shape,
Her mind was harder far than Iron,
The same would make each heart to ache.

‘Oh the cruel murdering mother,
How could she her offspring slay.
She bore a child by her own brother,
And took the Darlings life away.

‘Cruel base and wicked mother.
Her own offsprings blood did spill,
Without a cause and without reason
Her dear child the monster killed,
Seventeen wounds she had inflicted,
What a sight for to behold,
Little poor Celestia Christmas,
Who was scarcely ten years old.

Broadside: the trial of Celestia Somner‘On the sixteenth of February.
On that fatal saturday night,
She to her home did lead the infant,
Which did the little girl affright.
She cried oh mother do not kill me
Do not take my life away,
If you do my God won’t love you.
The pretty little dear did say…

‘This dreadfull deed is most distressing
In a dungeon now she lies,
The murderess makes a full confession
My blessed baby oh, she cries.
How could cursed Satan tempt me,
My sweet darling child to slay,
Oh whatever could possess me,
To take her precious life away…

‘O mother mother dearest mother.
Little dear Celistia said,
With that knife my own dear mother,
Don’t you kill your little maid.
But the tigress had no pity,
She seized her with the deadly knife
And in the dark and dismal cellar,
Took away her infants life.’

I hope this post has given you a taste of how the non-newspaper readers might have got their information about Celestina Sommer’s trial and sentence. Not forgetting word of mouth, the oldest and (until recently) quickest way to find out the news.

Next time: will Celestina hang?

Further reading:
Murder as entertainment: the British Library
The death hunters: British broadsides
Broadside Ballads Online, from the Bodleian Library
Crime broadsides, Harvard Law School Library
A brief guide to broadsides
Producing and Marketing Broadsides on Public Executions
Convict Voices: Women, Class, and Writing about Prison in Nineteenth-Century: ebook, Anne Schwan
The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868: ebook, VAC Gatrell

* Picture credits:
Broadside seller (Last Dying Speech): Rowlandson’s Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, 1820, public domain via the British Library
Life of the Mannings: broadside woodcut, c 1849, public domain via the British Library
Three broadsides: Broadside Ballads Online, from the Bodleian Library

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17

Posted in Nicholas Delaney | 7 Comments

Celestina’s trial – verdict and sentence: a Christmas tale pt 18

It was on Thursday, 10 April, 1856 that Celestina Sommer’s fate was to be decided: death by hanging or incarceration in an asylum. The evidence against her, and her own confession, made her guilt plain. But what would the verdict be?

Rachel Mount, the Sommers’ servant, had finished her witness statement. She’d described the events of little Celestina Christmas’s murder. To what was already known, she added that Charles and Celestina Sommer quarrelled, and that Charles beat his wife, who (not surprisingly) ‘seemed very unhappy’ and ‘frequently cried’.

Linton St sign - where Celestina Sommer murdered her daughterSergeant Edwin Townsend then took the stand. He repeated the evidence he’d given at Clerkenwell Police Court on Monday, 18 February: that he’d gone to 18 Linton Street (the Sommers’ home) on the day after the murder, with Rachel’s sister and Inspector Hutton; that he’d seen the body in the cellar; that Celestina ‘had said, “Me! I did not do it; I know nothing of it,” and then she said, “I heard a noise outside the area railings last night, but I not tell you, dear” (addressing her husband), “as I thought it would make you timid”.’

Later, Sgt Townsend said, he’d searched the house on 17 February and found a black dress with partly washed out bloodstains on it, hidden under Celestina’s bed. This was produced for the court. He said he’d also found bloody marks on the cellar and kitchen doors, on the sheet on Rachel’s bed in the kitchen, and on a lucifer (match) box.

respectable witnessRebecca Anne Donovan was the next witness. She was the ‘female searcher’ at Hoxton Police Station in Robert Street (which no longer exists but may be the current Prestwood St, off Wenlock St, near Shepherdess Walk).

She stated that she took Celestina to an upstairs room to search her. ‘After taking her dress off, she saw me look down at her petticoat, which I here produce, with marks of blood on it – she said, “I am subject to a bleeding at the nose, and I have used my petticoat; my husband can, tell you that, for he lent me a silk handkerchief” – she then said, “I have a coal cellar in my house without a coal plate; a girl was found there stabbed with a knife; I know nothing about it, for my house was fastened up by 10 o’clock that night.”‘

Sgt George Bexley (or Beckley) then gave evidence. He showed the jury the bloodstained stockings he’d found ‘between the bed and the floor – under the bed seemed to be the extent of Celestina’s hiding of bloodied clothes – and a knife.

At the first hearing at Clerkenwell Police Court there was no recorded mention of the murder weapon having been found. But now Sgt Bexley showed it to the court, saying: ‘I looked into a cupboard in the back parlour shortly afterwards, that same evening, and found this knife there (produced) – there were no other knives with it – there appeared to be a little red round this part of the handle – it appeared like blood.’

The Times report about the murder weaponIt’s odd that the sergeant was saying he’d found the ‘large sharp carving-knife’ on the day Celestina was arrested and the Sommers’ house was searched, 17 February. Yet at the police court hearing Inspector Payne had testified that he’d searched the house on the same day, but ‘could not discover the knife or any weapon with which the wounds were inflicted.’

How likely is it that an inspector of N (Islington) Division would be unaware of the appearance of such an important piece of evidence? Or that one of his sergeants would forget about finding it, or not mention it to his superior?

The knife handle also ‘appeared’ to be stained with red, which ‘appeared’ like blood. Was this cautious legal language? Yet the dress, petticoat, stockings, lucifer box and so on had definite blood on them, not apparent blood. However there’s no record of anyone picking up on this discrepancy.

Joseph Howe (or Hone), a police constable, was next. He repeated the evidence he’d given at the second hearing at Clerkenwell about Celestina’s bizarre behaviour while in the gaoler’s room at the back of the court.

Old Bailey Proceedings account of Celestina talkingHe stated: ‘After I had been there a few minutes, she began talking to herself about Hamlet and Richard the Third – after she had been talking some time, she put her handkerchief to her face, and said, in a low tone, that it was her brother’s child that was dead (that was said to herself), and he was dead, and when he died, she took the child to keep it, and she paid 5s. a week for it, which she paid out of her own earnings, as she taught music, and she did not wish to put the child to service, she was not big enough – she said, “I did it; it is no use telling a lie about it, for I did not know what to do for the best” – she said nothing more about the child – she was talking the whole of the time she was there, about her husband, what he was, and where she lived before they were married – she said her husband was an engraver – I do not remember anything else that she said.’

Was Celestina really talking to herself? The policeman said that ‘she knew that I was in the room.’ But when asked: ‘Was she speaking to you, or muttering to herself?’ he answered: ‘No – she was talking aloud to herself – I sat at the back of her – I do not know whether she saw me or not’. He was under orders not to speak to her.

He described Celestina talking about Hamlet and Richard III and commented: ‘She did not appear to be rambling’. Which suggests that if Celestina was trying to act ‘mad’ (like Hamlet?) she didn’t succeed.

The police surgeon, George William Henry Coward, testified to what he’d found at the Sommers’ house on 17 February:

Police surgeon's reportHis language was cautious, but he, too, mentioned the carving knife and said that he’d seen it at the Coroner’s inquest – again, something which hadn’t been mentioned in newspaper reports.

Then it was Julia Harrington‘s turn. She told the court:

Julia Harrington's evidence at Celestina's trialI wonder why Celestina’d written Julia a letter. For evidence? When she married Thomas, Julia hadn’t signed the register, just made her mark. Perhaps she could read but not write? She didn’t mention what was in Celestina’s letter.

The fact that Celestina had been paying less does suggest that what she’d said about not being able to afford her daughter’s keep might have been a fact. Yet if her husband Charles was telling the truth, he’d always paid for the child’s keep as part of an arrangement made before they married. Maybe Celestina had topped up Charles’s 2/6 from her own earnings as a ‘vocalist’.

Apart from having her name in the papers yet again, the Old Bailey appearance was the end of my 3x great-grandmother Julia’s association with this story. But who can tell what pain it had caused her: losing the child she’d brought up from birth, the news of the murder, having to see little Celestina’s body and giving evidence in two courts, including the forbidding Old Bailey? I imagine it was traumatic for her.

The last witness was Charles Grobe, husband of Celestina Sommer’s sister Elizabeth Jane, who lived in Murray St. He said that he’d last seen little Celestina on the 16th of February, when her mother came to take her away, saying she’d got her a post as a greengrocer’s servant. They left at about 10 at night and he’d followed them (why? Did did he suspect something?) until they were inside 18 Linton St, when he went home.

Photograph of William Ballantine, Jack1956 via Wikimedia

William Ballantine *

That’s where the account in the Old Bailey Proceedings ended, apart from the verdict. The Times continued with William Ballantine’s address to the jury on Celestina’s behalf.

It was brief. He suggested that ‘there were circumstances in the case that would justify the jury in coming either to the conclusion that at the time the act was committed the prisoner, from some cause or other, was not in a state of mind to be responsible for her acts, or else that she was not actuated by that malice required by the law to constitute the act of murder.’

The Reading Mercury and Leeds Times elaborated, saying that he ‘urged that the ill-usage [Celestina] had received from her husband had so preyed upon her mind as to render her not a responsible agent.’

William Ballantine finished by suggesting to the jury that ‘they might find her guilty of a lesser crime which would still entail upon her the most severe punishment.’ A verdict such as ‘guilty but insane’ would mean a custodial sentence – but not death.

It was in vain. The chief judge in Celestina’s case, Charles Crompton, summed up and, as The Times put it, ‘the jury almost immediately found her guilty.’

The judges put on their black caps – a well-known sign that the death sentence was to be passed – and Justice Crompton said: ‘You have been convicted… of the dreadful crime of murdering your own child, a girl ten years of age. The evidence shows that you designedly took her away from the person in whose charge she was to your husband’s house, and that you there committed the dreadful crime.’

He went on to comment on the verdict:

Justice Crompton comment on the jury's verdict in Celestina Sommer's caseIt seems to overstate things for him to say that he didn’t remember a clearer case of murder. But Celestina’s crime had already become in some way special, and it would grow into an iconic cause célèbre.

Justice Crompton would not go into details of the crime, but continued:

Justice Crompton's sentence continuedWe know that what Celestina had expected was to be found insane and to be released after a short time. But the judge went on, in the familiar and terrible words of the death sentence:

Celestina Sommer's death sentenceThe Essex Standard added:

Trial 1

Charles Crompton asked ‘the usual formal question in such cases, whether the prisoner had anything to urge in stay of execution’, but the answer was no.

The papers ended their reports by describing Celestina’s anguish:

Celestina assisted from the courtThe Hereford Times described her as being in ‘an almost senseless state’.

Whether Celestina’s ‘intense mental agony’ during the trial was because she was hearing, again, the details of what she’d done to her daughter, or because these details sounded so damning, or perhaps because her defence lawyer, William Ballantine, had warned her that she was likely not to be found insane, we can only guess.

But it’s easy to imagine why she collapsed when she heard the sentence. All her hopes and fantasies were crushed. She was to hang, and the judge had warned her not to expect mercy.

Celestina Sommer was escorted along Dead Man’s Walk back to Newgate Prison, where she was to wait for her execution.

Further reading:
Old Bailey Online. Extracts quoted: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 08 August 2015), April 1856, trial of Celestina Somner (t18560407-457)

* Picture credits:
Old Bailey Proceedings (book form): Old Bailey Online, from microfilm produced by Hudson House Associates, Inc, under the imprint of Trans-Media Microfilms
Caricature from London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life
William Ballantine, photograph: via Wikipedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast, and The Times Digital Archive

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17



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Celestina Sommer’s trial for murder: a Christmas tale pt 17

Celestina Sommer was eventually tried for the murder of her daughter, Celestina Christmas, at the Old Bailey on Thursday, 10 April, 1856, over a month after her first appearance in the Central Criminal Court.

Old Bailey proceedings: details of trial and charge of murder

Old Bailey Proceedings *

The newspapers reported the trial with their usual enthusiasm, and I’m going to use their accounts as well as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey to tell the story, as they cover different aspects.

Cartoon from Punch: 'Thirst for Murder'

Punch cartoon, 1874 *

As you’d expect from the interest in Celestina’s case (by now she was famous, or infamous, enough not to need much introduction) the court was crowded.

The judge in her case was Charles Crompton, whose portrait you can see here. He was considered one of the best judges on the bench, and ‘had a character as open and winning as it was upright and high-principled, with a lively humour that in youth was apt to brim over and later was sometimes rather caustic but which grew mellow with age.’ (Wikisource)

William Bodkin was once more counsel for the prosecution and William Ballantine for the defence.

The newspapers opened with more comments about Celestina’s appearance. Here’s the Leeds Times:

Trial5Several papers again commented on how small and young-looking Celestina Sommer was, and that she must’ve been quite young when she gave birth to her daughter.

The trial began with William Bodkin briefly stating the facts in support of the charge of wilful murder. Then it was time for the ‘principal witness’ to be questioned. This was, once more, Rachel Mount (or Mont, or Munt). One more piece of information about this ‘interesting little girl’ was that she originally came from Littleworth, in Oxfordshire. It was a local paper, the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, which mentioned that, not surprisingly.

OB Ill Ldn News 1842

Old Bailey trial, Illustrated London News, 1842 *

Most of Rachel’s evidence was similar to her account from the hearings at Clerkenwell Police Court. She repeated that Celestina went out at about 10 o’clock one Saturday night in February, telling her that she was going to Murray Street, and that she expected Rachel to be in bed when she got back. But Rachel stayed up, sewing a silk apron for herself, and hurried into bed when she heard her mistress come back.

After telling the unknown visitor to wipe her feet and wait in the parlour, Celestina went upstairs to change out of her ‘black dress, with flounces to it, and bugles up the sleeves’ into a plainer one. She came down into the kitchen and told the girl, who we know was her daughter, Celestina Christmas, to come in. According to The Times, Rachel said that she’d seen the girl before, ‘and knew she was the prisoner’s child’, which is different from her evidence at earlier trials.

The two Celestinas went into the cellar, where the conversation about throat-cutting took place:

Old Bailey proceedings: Someone was going to cut Celestina Christmas's throatI have to say I find this puzzling. Why would little Celestina have said ‘someone’ was going to cut her throat? Who would have told her that, and why? Or how else would she know? But great stress seems to have been placed on this conversation, and I suppose it was to show that the murder was premeditated.

Rachel’s account, in the Proceedings, continued: ‘Mistress said, “Oh! was she?” and the girl said, “Yes” – then mistress said, “Supposing I cut it” – then the child said, “Oh! you are going to cut my throat,” and mistress said, “Hush! hush” – the little girl said that she was going to the devil, the devil would take her, she was going to hell and she said, “I am dying! I am dying” – then the candle was put out, and mistress walked about the front kitchen, and she said, “You b—— I will kill you! you b——, I will kill you! I will teach you telling any more lies about me: you are a liar, and you are a thief” – at that time the child was making a groaning noise in the cellar – the groaning noise was before what my mistress said, whilst she was saying it…’

Barrister, from London Characters *

Barrister, from London Characters *

The older Celestina then went to the kitchen, lit a candle and went back into the cellar. ‘I did not hear the deceased make any noise after this,’ Rachel continued. Not long after, her mistress came back and said: ‘There, you b——, you must be dead now.’

Rachel went on to describe how her mistress then tapped her shoulder to wake her up and asked if she’d gone out to get soap, which Rachel had. Celestina spent about half an hour in the back kitchen, washing, then went upstairs to the parlour, where she paced around for a while before going up to bed.

Charles Sommer, Celestina’s husband, had been out since about eight that evening. Presumably Celestina had known that he’d be out late, which is why she chose that night to kill her daughter. He came home at one in the morning; Rachel said that she’d hear him say so to his wife. Unsurprisingly, Rachel didn’t sleep that night, and stayed in bed late in the morning. Perhaps she felt safer there, or was putting off checking that the unbelievable event she’d witnessed had really happened.

Rachel also spoke about going to look in the cellar on the next morning, and telling her sister some of what had happened.

William Ballantine, counsel for the defence, cross-examined her. She told him that, although the master (Charles Sommer) was kind to her, he was less than kind to his own wife. Celestina, in turn, scolded Rachel. The Times reported:

Trial7It was William Bodkin who asked the second question, as the Proceedings’ report of the cross-examination says:

Old Bailey proceedings: Charles Sommer beat CelestinaSo Charles beat Celestina. Could it really have been because, as Rachel told the prosecution, dinner was late? Celestina was unhappy, cried a lot, and possibly took it out on Rachel. Charles, meanwhile, stayed out until one in the morning. The marriage of convenience seemed to be falling apart after not much more than a year.

That was the end of Rachel Mount’s evidence. And because there’s still plenty of the trial to cover, I’m going to end this post here. I did put it all in one post, but it was far too long and I didn’t want you to fall asleep or get bored halfway through.

So watch this space for more witnesses, a pair of stockings, a petticoat and a knife. Oh, and a verdict.

Further reading:
Old Bailey Online. Extracts quoted: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 08 August 2015), April 1856, trial of Celestina Somner (t18560407-457)

* Picture credits:
Old Bailey Proceedings (book form): Old Bailey Online, from microfilm produced by Hudson House Associates, Inc, under the imprint of Trans-Media Microfilms
Punch cartoon: Punch Historical Archive,
Caricature from London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast, and The Times Digital Archive

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16

Posted in Celestina | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Celestina at the Old Bailey: a Christmas tale pt 16

In the last episode of this true story, Celestina Sommer was in Newgate Prison awaiting her trial at another iconic bastion of London’s penal system – the Old Bailey.

Newgate prison: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850

Newgate (green) and the Old Bailey (red), 1850 *

The Central Criminal Court, as it was, and is, more formally known, was next to Newgate, just to the south on the street which gave it its name, Old Bailey. It was just as likely to terrify the criminal and the passing citizen as its neighbour was.

The building was designed by the same architect, George Dance, as Newgate, but in a neoclassical style and with a semi-circular wall around the front for better crowd control and privacy. The wonderful Old Bailey Online site has an image of this, and a history of the court, here.

OS map of the Old Bailey, 1953

OS map of the Old Bailey, 1953 *

The current Central Criminal Court was built on the site of the former Newgate Prison and the Sessions House (another name for the court). They were demolished in 1902 and the new building was opened in 1907.

There aren’t as many images of the Sessions House before it was pulled down as there are of Newgate, so I’m going to use contemporary written accounts to paint a word picture of what Celestina experienced on the morning of Friday, 7 March, 1856, when she was taken for trial at the Old Bailey.

The judge Celestina appeared before was Sir William Wightman, QC, a Scotsman born in 1784 and a knight and judge since 1841, 15 years before this trial. There’s a portrait of him from the 1840s here.

The newspapers loved a good murder trial. Well, in fact, most Victorians did. So it’s no surprise that they were there to see Celestina’s. Here’s the Sheffield Telegraph‘s report from the following day:

Sheffield Telegraph report of the first trail of Celestina Sommer at the Old BaileyThe Era, two days after the trial, had even more to say about what Celestina looked like in the dock:

The Era's report on the Old Bailey trial of Celestina SommerThe journalists in these and other papers were very struck by Celestina’s young appearance and ‘absence of ferocity’. She just didn’t look like a proper murderess should. Victorians judged others on their looks even more than we do now.

'Contrasted faces', a picture showing the ideal woman and an Irish oneThese, after all, were the days when people believed that bumps on the skull could reveal someone’s character. Faces could tell you whether someone was a criminal or not. Irish people, being poor, rowdy and foreign, had rough, monkey-like faces (prejudice has a long history) and well-behaved young women had soft, regular features. Criminals should seem coarse, violent and debauched, not small and young. That, for goodness’ sake, was what innocent women looked like.

Whether Celestina was acting the part of a madwoman, or understandably frightened and distraught, she appeared distracted and must have been close to fainting if the attendant had to be there with a bottle of smelling salts.

 What would the Old Bailey have been like on that March morning in 1856? It’s time to turn to contemporary accounts. Montagu Williams, QC, wrote in Round London: Down East and Up West in 1894, four decades later, but it still gives a feeling of the outside of the Sessions House:

Outside the Old Bailey

‘There are two entrances to the Old Bailey, one approached from the public thoroughfare, and the other approached from the court-yard of the prison. You reach the latter by passing up some stone steps which are on the right-hand side as you enter through the broad gateway. This entrance is used by the Judges, Aldermen, Sheriffs, and other officers of the Court, by counsel, and, on occasions such as the one to which I am referring, by the few privileged members of the public who have been furnished with tickets of admission. In order to prevent a crush, wooden barriers are erected at the bottom and top of the stone steps…’

Here’s James Grant, writing in The Great Metropolis in 1837:

‘The scene exhibited outside is always well worth seeing. But to be seen to the greatest advantage, one should visit the place on a Monday morning when the courts open. On the street outside, in the place leading to the New Court and in the large yard then thrown open opposite the stairs leading to the Old Court, there is always, at such a time, a great concourse of what may be called mixed society with a propriety I have seldom seen equalled in any other case. There you see both sexes, in great numbers. There are persons of all ages, of every variety of character, and in every diversity of circumstances. There are the prosecutors and the witnesses for and against the prosecution. The judges and the persons to be tried are the only parties you miss…

‘ The Old Bailey is divided into two courts. Formerly there was only one court; but for a number of years past there have been two. The one last established is called the New Court; the court which previously existed is called the Old Court. The most important cases are usually disposed of in the Old Court…’

And indeed Celestina’s trial for wilful murder was held there. So let’s go inside and have a look at the courtroom. Montagu Williams again:

Inside the Old Bailey

‘I don’t think there is a more depressing place in the world than the Old Court of the Old Bailey. There are two doors leading into the Court from the corridor. One is used by the Judges, the Aldermen and Sheriffs, and the few selected visitors, who either take their seats upon the bench or in a contiguous enclosure that looks like a huge private box. The second entrance from the corridor is used by barristers and their clerks, solicitors, and other persons having business in the Court. The centre of the chamber is occupied with seats for the members of the Bar, and below them is the solicitors’ bench. Between the Judge and the jury — both of whom command a fine view of the dock — is the witness-box.

‘Underneath the jury-box sits the usher, an individual who must enjoy very little sleep in a natural way at night, for while the trials are on he is rarely to be seen with his eyes open. Once or twice during the day, however, he rouses himself by a great effort and, in stentorian tones, shouts “Silence!” and this, generally, at a time when everything is so still that you could almost hear a pin drop.

‘At length there are the two knocks, and the Judge, the Lord Mayor, and the Sheriffs, preceded by the mace bearer, enter the crowded Court. The prisoner ascends from below into the dock, steps up to the rail, and is called upon by the Clerk of Arraigns to plead to the indictment….’

Published in 1858, two years after Celestina Sommer’s trial, The Leisure Hour, an illustrated weekly journal, described the scene:

‘It is to the Old Court, however, situated to the left of the entrance from the street, that the greatest interest attaches, because it is here that those memorable trials have taken place which have made the annals of the Old Bailey famous in the classics of crime. This Old Court is a hall of no architectural pretensions, about forty feet square, and tolerably well lighted and ventilated. Opposite the entrance is the raised seat of the judges, extending along one whole side of the apartment. Near the centre is the chief seat, with a canopy overhead, surmounted by the royal arms, and showing beneath it a gilded sword upon the crimson draped wall.

Dead Man's Walk, the passage from Newgate to the Old Bailey

Dead Man’s Walk, the passage from Newgate to the court

‘Fronting the bench, and close to the entrance, is the dock for the prisoners, in which they stand on a raised platform with wainscoted bulwarks. The prisoners are not brought to this dock from the street and through the assembled crowds, but pass into it through an underground stone passage which connects the Old Court with the prison of Newgate. In front of the prisoner, on the broad hand-rail on which he leans, are scattered a number of sprigs of the rue plant – not to remind him, as simple people have supposed, of his rueful condition, but as an antidote to the danger of infection which the court is supposed to incur from his presence after confinement in unwholesome cells. This practice is about a century old…

‘To the left of the dock is the witness-box, and to the left of that the jury-box – an arrangement which enables the jury, as well as the judges on the bench, to see at one glance the faces both of the witnesses and the prisoners. The counsel have their seats round a table in the centre below, and to the right of the table are rows of raised seats for the accommodation of spectators, and a few benches, supposed by a fiction of the law to be free to the public, though in practice the reverse is the case. The accommodation really provided for the public is a gallery with rows of benches above the head of the prisoner, and in front of the bench of judges, admission to which is obtainable only on payment of a fee.

‘We will look in now upon this Old Court while a trial is going on. The crowd around the outer portals, and the pushing and struggling for entrance, would warn us, if we did not know it already, that an affair of more than usual interest is going forward. We elbow through the crowd and make for the lower door, but there the policemen in attendance only shake their heads at all demands for admission, and refuse to, pass a single additional person who cannot show that his presence is required within. We mount the stairs leading to the gallery, where numbers more are clustered round the doom, waiting their time to take the places of such of those within, who, under the pressure of the heat or that of hunger and thirst, shall choose to vacate them. Half an hour’s patience, and an oblation of current coin, at length procure us the privilege of attempting to force a way in…’

James Grant described the courtroom as it was two decades earlier, in 1837:

Trial at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court), 1808, hand-coloured print

Old Bailey trial, 1808, before refitting *

‘The interior of both courts is tastefully fitted up. They have of late been re-altered and repaired at an expense of several thousand pounds. The judges in either court sit on the north side. Immediately below them are the counsel, all seated around the table. Directly opposite the bench is the bar, and above it, but a little further back, is the gallery. The jury sit, in the Old Court, on the right of the bench: in the New Court they sit on the left of the bench. The witness-box is, in both courts, at the farthest end of the seats of the jury. The reporters, in both courts, sit opposite the jury.

‘The Old Bailey courts sit from nine in the morning, till nine, ten, and sometimes eleven at night. Nine is the usual time for rising; but when a case goes on up to that hour, the courts usually sit until it is finished.’

WS Gilbert, a man better known to have had a little list of lyrics for Arthur Sullivan’s tunes, also wrote a large part of the illustrated book London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life. Before his theatrical career, he’d contemplated going into law. Unfortunately it seems that he didn’t write the sketches about the Old Bailey, the m’learned friends and the witnesses. Still, it’s worth adding some of these near-contemporary eyewitness accounts. These were written about 10 years after Celestina’s trial.

‘The bench occupies one side of the court, and the dock faces it. On the right side of the bench are the jury-box and witness-box; on the left are the seats for privileged witnesses and visitors, and also for the reporters and jurymen in waiting. The space bounded by the bench on one side, the dock on another, the jury-box on a third, and the reporters’ box on the fourth, is occupied by counsel and attorneys, the larger half being assigned to the counsel. Over the dock is the public gallery, to which admission was formerly obtained by payment of a fee to the warder. It is now free to about thirty of the public at large at one time, who can see nothing of the prisoner except his scalp, and hear very little of what is going on.

Punch cartoon: trial for murder

Punch’s Almanack: trial for murder mania *

‘The form in which a criminal trial is conducted is briefly as follows: The case is submitted to the grand jury, and if, on examination of one or more of the witnesses for the prosecution, they find a prima facie case against the prisoner, a “true bill” is found, and handed to the clerk of arraigns in open court. The prisoner is then called upon to plead: and, in the event of his pleading “guilty”, the facts of the case are briefly stated by counsel, together with a statement of a previous conviction, if the prisoner is an old offender, and the judge passes sentence. If the prisoner pleads “not guilty,” the trial proceeds in the following form. The indictment and plea are both read over to the jury by the clerk of arraigns, and they are charged by him to try whether the prisoner is “guilty” or “not guilty.” The counsel for the prosecution then opens the case briefly or at length, as its nature may suggest, and then proceeds to call witnesses for the prosecution. At the close of the “examination in chief” of each witness, the counsel for the defence (or, in the absence of counsel for the defence, the prisoner himself) cross-examines.

‘At the conclusion of the examination and cross-examination of the witnesses for the prosecution, the counsel for the prosecution has the privilege of summing up the arguments that support his case. If witnesses are called for the defence, the defending counsel has, also, a right to sum up; and in that case the counsel for the prosecution has a right of reply. The matter is then left in the hands of the judge, who “sums up”, placing the facts of the case clearly and impartially before the jury, pointing out discrepancies in the evidence, clearing the case of all superfluous matter, and directing them in all the points of law that arise in the case. The jury then consider their verdict, and, when they are agreed, give it in open court, and the prisoner at the bar is asked whether he has anything to say why the sentence of law shall not be passed upon him. This question is little more than a matter of form, and the judge rarely waits for an answer, but proceeds immediately to pass sentence on the prisoner…

William Ballantine, caricature by Alfred Thompson https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Ballantine_Vanity_Fair_5_March_1870_%28crop%29.jpg

William Ballantine, Celestina’s defence counsel *

‘To a stranger, a criminal trial is always an interesting sight. If the prisoner happens to be charged with a crime of magnitude, he has become quite a public character by the time he enters the dock to take his trial; and it is always interesting to see how far a public character corresponds with the ideal which we have formed of him. Then his demeanour in the dock, influenced, as it often is, by the fluctuating character of the evidence for and against him, possesses a grim interest for the unaccustomed spectator. He is witnessing a real sensation drama, and as the case draws to a close, if the evidence has been very conflicting, he feels an interest in the issue akin to that with which a sporting man would take in the running of a great race.

‘Then the deliberations of the jury on their verdict, the sharp, anxious look which the prisoner casts ever and anon towards them, the deep breath that he draws as the jury resume their places, the trembling anxiety, or, more affecting still, the preternaturally compressed lips and contracted brow, with which he awaits the publication of their verdict, and his great, deep sigh of relief when he knows the worst, must possess a painful interest for all but those whom familiarity with such scenes has hardened. Then comes the sentence, followed, perhaps, by a woman’s shriek from the gallery, and all is over, as far as the spectator is concerned. The next case is called on, and new facts and new faces soon obliterate any painful effect which the trial may have had upon his mind.’

Celestina had certainly ‘become quite a public character’ and the crowds in the courtroom no doubt expected a thrilling trial. Unfortunately for them, the counsel for Celestina’s defence, William Ballantine, had other ideas. He asked the Court to allow the trial to ‘stand over’ until the next session, in April, as the Morning Post reported:

Morning post report of Celestina's first Old Bailey trialMr Justice Wightman pointed out that the trial was ‘specially fixed for that morning’. On what ground was the application for postponement made?

Morning post report of Celestina's first Old Bailey trialIn other words, he needed more time than the week he’d had to find out whether Celestina had been ‘insane’ when she murdered her daughter, Celestina Christmas. If she had been insane, she wouldn’t be sentenced to death. So the consequences were huge.

The counsel for the prosecution, William Bodkin, had no objection:

Morning post report of Celestina's first Old Bailey trialThe Court agreed to postpone Celestina Sommer’s trial until the April session.

It’s interesting that Bodkin picked up the ‘one possible result’ – hanging – and that a trial with such a possible end should not appear to have been hurried. He was thinking ahead, to public opinion as well as legal precedence.

And so Celestina was taken back to Newgate to prove herself insane – or not – and to wait for her final trial: for life or death.

Further reading:
The Cat’s Meat Shop: a tour of legal London
Wayward Women: Victorian England’s Female Offenders
Victorian London
: just what it says. A treasure trove
Old Bailey Online
London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life
, c1870, written by Henry Mayhew (author of London Labour and the London Poor) and others

* Picture credits:
Dead Man’s Walk: public domain
Punch’s Almanack: British Library Board
William Ballantine, caricature by Alfred Thompson: via Wikipedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850, via Mapco
Map: OS London/TQ, 1:2,500/ 1:1,250, 1951, via National Library of Scotland

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15



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Celestina in Newgate Prison: a Christmas tale pt 15

In the last episode of the Celestina Sommer story, we left Celestina in the police van being carried off to Newgate Prison to await trial for wilful murder. Today I’m going to look more closely at what that notorious place was like when Celestina arrived there in 1856.

Newgate, 1st half of 19th century. Print by George Shepherd

Newgate, print from the first half of the 19th century *

Newgate. It was a name to terrify even the most callous and hardened criminals. All Victorian Londoners knew ‘those dread recollections that make the very name of Newgate significant of terror and vain remorse’, as Thomas Archer wrote in 1865, nine years after Celestina went there.

Imprisonment. Fear of trial, fear of sentence. Squalor, filth, depravity, corruption. Little light, little air. Transportation (which didn’t end until 1868). Execution. Despair. These words were all associated with that symbolic prison.

And Celestina would’ve been aware of them all.

What did she see when the van drew up outside Newgate on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26 February, 1856? High, almost windowless walls, soot-blackened, intimidating. The architect George Dance had designed it in the ‘Architecture Terrible‘ style; the French phrase meant ‘terrifying’, not ‘completely rubbish’, of course. The theory was that the prison would repel those who saw its ‘reinforced walls almost without windows, a deliberate inelegance, and overt symbolism such as carved chains over entrances’. It was a monumental, solid, warning.

Even so, the prison had been burned and looted just before rebuilding was finished, during the Gordon Riots of 1780. The rioters set the prisoners free – a London foreshadowing of the storming of the Bastille. The completed building managed to hold undesirables out – and in.

William Hepworth Dixon's description of Newgate, chapter 8

Dixon’s description of Newgate

The large, solid, high-walls of Newgate would be intimidating enough from the outside. But what would Celestina have seen when the heavy door opened?

William Hepworth Dixon described the journey to the women’s wing in his book, The London Prisons, published in 1850 (pp 191-224):

‘Up the narrow steps, into the turnkey’s room, and along a darkish passage, we come into a small open court, surrounded by high walls, between which a scanty supply of air and light finds its way downwards as into a well. Facing us stands a massive building, chary of windows, and those strongly grated: it is the women’s wing of the prison…

‘As soon as the ponderous locks are turned, and the heavy bars removed, we enter the doorway, and ascend the stone staircase. Suites of chambers branch off on either side; these are occupied by the prisoners who are awaiting trial. An attempt is made to classify them according to their degrees of guiltiness; but practically this is of little use, as the matron can only judge of the detenue’s grade from her own statements, or from the offence with which she stands charged.’

The Christian Socialist reprinted extracts from this book in 1851, with some illustrations of the inside of Newgate at the bottom.

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800 *

The women’s part of the prison was on the right as you entered, next door to the Sessions House (or Old Bailey, as it’s usually called). Charles Dickens described it in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836:

‘Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates – for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma – we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards. One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them…’

Dickens went on to describe two inmates, ‘hardened beyond all hope of redemption’, and their visitors. He continued:

‘Two or three women were standing at different parts of the grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large proportion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all, beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be within the walls. So, passing hastily down the yard, and pausing only for an instant to notice the little incidents we have just recorded, we were conducted up a clean and well-lighted flight of stone stairs to one of the wards. There are several in this part of the building, but a description of one is a description of the whole.

Newgate prison: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850

Map with Newgate (green) and the Sessions House (red) in 1850 *

‘It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted, of course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison, but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the room ran a shelf; below it, at regular intervals, a row of large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of which was hung the sleeping mat of a prisoner: her rug and blanket being folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night, these mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apartment.

‘Over the fireplace, was a large sheet of pasteboard, on which were displayed a variety of texts from Scripture, which were also scattered about the room in scraps about the size and shape of the copy-slips which are used in schools. On the table was a sufficient provision of a kind of stewed beef and brown bread, in pewter dishes, which are kept perfectly bright, and displayed on shelves in great order and regularity when they are not in use.

‘The women rose hastily, on our entrance, and retired in a hurried manner to either side of the fireplace. They were all cleanly – many of them decently – attired, and there was nothing peculiar, either in their appearance or demeanour. One or two resumed the needlework which they had probably laid aside at the commencement of their meal; others gazed at the visitors with listless curiosity; and a few retired behind their companions to the very end of the room, as if desirous to avoid even the casual observation of the strangers.

Map showing Newgate Prison in the 1890s

More detailed map: Newgate and the Old Bailey in the 1890s *

‘Some old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the thing was no novelty, appeared perfectly indifferent to our presence, and remained standing close to the seats from which they had just risen; but the general feeling among the females seemed to be one of uneasiness during the period of our stay among them: which was very brief. Not a word was uttered during the time of our remaining, unless, indeed, by the wardswoman in reply to some question which we put to the turnkey who accompanied us.

‘In every ward on the female side, a wardswoman is appointed to preserve order, and a similar regulation is adopted among the males. The wardsmen and wardswomen are all prisoners, selected for good conduct. They alone are allowed the privilege of sleeping on bedsteads; a small stump bedstead being placed in every ward for that purpose. On both sides of the gaol, is a small receiving-room, to which prisoners are conducted on their first reception, and whence they cannot be removed until they have been examined by the surgeon of the prison.’

In the following year, James Grant wrote in The Great Metropolis:

‘The remaining or third station forms the south wing, or that part of the building which is nearest to Ludgate Hill. There all the female prisoners are confined. They have two yards allotted them, each of which has sleeping wards and day-rooms attached. One of the two yards is occupied by females who are awaiting their trials. Connected with this department of Newgate, there is a school for girls. The upper story of this yard is used as an infirmary for females. The second yard and attached apartments are reserved for females under sentence of transportation for felonies and misdemeanors.’

Dickens touched on the characters of the women in Newgate. This was a huge concern for the commentators in the Victorian age. In 1852, four years before Celestina was locked up, David W.Bartlett wrote in his London by Day and Night:

Illustration of Dickens's description of Newgate: two women

Illustration of Dickens’s Boz sketch *

‘We now passed into the female department of the prison – the first room we entered contained two quite handsome young women, and as a rule there was a great difference between the appearance of the male and female prisoners. The latter were ashamed, and could not conceal it. One face was really a beautiful one, and crimsoned with blushes, but some of them seemed wholly lost to goodness, and such were indescribably more horrible than my of the men’s faces. Why is it that an utterly depraved woman looks so much worse than a depraved man? It certainly is so, and perhaps the reason is, that we all expect to see virtue and beauty in women, but we are not so confident of men and when we are disappointed, the look of Vice upon the woman’s face looks more hideous than on a man’s.

‘In one ward we saw a woman with as sweet a looking babe as ever we saw out of it. It was a touching sight – such pure Innocence in the arms of Guilt. And when we thought of the cruel scorn of the world, we wished, almost, that the babe might die, instead of living to herd with wicked men, or if among good, to be taunted with its birth. Born in Newgate let the child be gentle as the gentlest, pure as the purest and beautiful as a poet’s ideal, and that stigma would forever banish it from society.

‘There was a young girl in the same ward only eight years old, who looked as if she was frightened at our approach. We wondered how one so young could get to such a place. Her face was very pale, and she was reading a little Testament when we entered the room she curtsied to us gracefully, and as we looked at her, we thought her eyes filled with tears. She did not seem to be at borne with those around her. Close to her side there was one of the ugliest-looking hags we ever have seen, with reddish eyes, and a low forehead. Newgate has its contrasts as well as the world outside its walls.’

Parsian fahion plate, two women, 1850s

Now that’s what women ought to be like *

Women, of course, were the weaker vessel, the fairer, gentler sex, more inclined to virtue than men. So their fall was more shocking. It was… unnatural. And along with the disgust at these unwomanly women ran the fear that the relatively innocent would be corrupted by being shut up with the hardened criminals, the prostitutes, the teachers of vice.

As Dickens described in 1836, prisoners were held together in ‘wards’. Dixon’s 1850 account, earlier in this post, said that those awaiting trial were kept in ‘chambers’, so it seems that there was some segregation for them, at least.

But contemporary accounts of Newgate, complaining about the bad influence of untried prisoners on others, especially the ones found innocent, imply that there was also a fair degree of mixing. And Newgate was ‘a prison of detention, not of correction’; it only held people who had not yet been tried, or those waiting to be transported or executed. So the proportion of potentially innocent, corruptible people was fairly high.

This worry about bad influence had already led to calls for Newgate to be remodelled on the ‘separate system’, with one prisoner to one cell. This was to start in May 1857, with the men’s wards. But for now, Celestina was in with the other murderers.

Celestina Sommer would stay in the ‘awaiting trial’ section of Newgate Prison until Friday, 7 March, when she was to stand in the dock at the Old Bailey.

Further information:
The Newgate Calendar, c 1780
Wayward Women
Victorian London: Newgate Prison
Old Bailey Online: Crime, Justice and Punishment
Sketches by Boz: ebook, University of Adelaide
London-In-Site, a blog post about a visit to Newgate. The comments are worth reading, too.
Gresham College lecture: Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell

* Picture credits:
West side of Newgate, print by George Shepherd, c 1800: Akigka, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Plan of the interior of Newgate: Wimstead~commonswiki, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Illustration for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz: Princeton University Art Museum
Fashion plate: Haabet, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850, via Mapco
Map: OS London, 1:1,056, 1893-95, via National Library of Scotland

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 16


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New evidence against Celestina: a Christmas tale pt 14

On Tuesday, 26 February, 1856, ‘the avenues of Clerkenwell police court were [once again] crowded to excess by persons anxious to obtain a sight of the murderess’, Celestina Sommer. She was there to be re-examined for killing her daughter, Celestina Christmas, 10 days before.

However bad the crowding was, the Morning Post added, it was not as bad as it had been at the first police court hearing on Monday 18th:

Morning Post report on the re-examination of Celestina Sommer for murderIt must have been an intimidating sight for Celestina, for the witnesses, and for officials charged with keeping order – especially after the mobbing incident after the inquest held on Wednesday 20th.

This time the court was taking no chances. Celestina’s hearing was scheduled for that morning, so the spectators probably arrived in good time. But the Mount sisters, who’d been chased by the mob after the inquest, were smuggled into the building even earlier to keep them from harm. They were probably terrified.

The police also took them away in a cab after the hearing. But, as the Morning Post said,

Morning Post report on Celestina Sommer's trial: no toruble with the crowdJust before noon Celestina Sommer was ‘placed in the dock’ before William Corrie, the same magistrate who’d tried her at the first Clerkenwell police court hearing. The Morning Post commented that she ‘appeared a great deal better than on the last examination’. Inspector Payne, the N Division (Islington) policeman who’d searched the Sommers’ house for a murder weapon, was also there ‘to watch the case’.

The hearing started with the chief clerk, Mr Mould, reading out the evidence taken at the previous police court hearing. This would’ve taken some time. Then the first witness was called – my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington.

Julia Harrington's witness statement. Celestina Christmas born in her house. Her mother took her away.Poor Julia, having to go through the details again and knowing her name would once more be splashed in the papers. I wonder if she was afraid of a negative reaction against her giving evidence, after what had happened to the Mount girls after the inquest? But she was only giving the bare facts of Celestina Christmas’s life with her. It couldn’t be seen as snitching to the peelers.

There’s one new detail there: that Celestina Sommer told Julia that she’d got little Celestina a job as a nursemaid. There’s no evidence that this is true. And, according to the Cheltenham Chronicle, Celestina told her sister Elizabeth Grobe, when she took her daughter away from 16 Murray Street, that she’d found ‘a place for her at a green-grocer’s’. So once again it looks as if the older Celestina had already made her plans to get rid of her daughter… for good.

The only other new evidence apart from Julia’s came from police constable Hone, 134 N Division. He told the court that, after Celestina’d been taken from the courtroom at the end of the hearing on Monday 18th, she was put into the gaoler’s room at the back of the court to wait for a police van. There she began talking in such a bizarre way that I’m going to reproduce the Morning Post report in full:

Celestina Sommer talks about Hamlet, Richard III and her daughter. She said that the child was her brother's, she paid for her keep, and she didn't  want to put her into service.This is odd on many levels. First, talking about performances of Shakespeare plays when she’d just been committed for trial for ‘wilful murder’. Could it have been part of her plan to appear ‘insane’? A way of distracting herself? Or of showing that she was cultured, not a common criminal? Was she genuinely so shocked that she had no idea of what she was talking about? Of course, murder is an important feature of both plays.

Photo of an older Samuel Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey

Samuel Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey *

Then there’s her claim that little Celestina was her brother’s child. She’d said this before Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend had questioned Julia Harrington after the first trial, so at the time she didn’t know that she would soon be revealed as the murdered girl’s mother. Presumably she was still trying to keep up the pretence that Celestina Christmas wasn’t hers. The claim that the child belonged to her brother was repeated in several papers.

Why would she choose her brother as little Celestina’s parent? William and Elizabeth Christmas had two sons, William Foster, named after his father, born in 1820, and Alfred, the one whose birth in 1828 seems to have triggered the Christmas family into having the triple baptism I mentioned at the beginning of the story.

Little Celestina was born in late December 1845 (not November, as Julia said, but there’s no reason why she’d have remembered the exact date 10 years later). That puts her conception in March 1845. Alfred would’ve been old enough at 17 to be the father, but my money’s on the then 25-year-old William as the brother Celestina meant.

There’s a powerful reason for this. William appears in the 1841 census at the Christmas’s house in King Square, but not in the 1851 census. Had he moved away? I found a William Christmas in 1851 in the same parish, St Luke, but he was a journeyman, a basket-maker; not a likely career for the eldest son of a silversmith. There’s another in Shoreditch who’s a house servant. And there’s an entry for a William Christmas in the FreeBMD death register for the last quarter of 1846, also in St Luke. If this is William Foster Christmas the younger, he’d be the ‘poor dead brother’ Celestina referred to. It makes her claim more plausible.

The idea that William was the child’s father hung around for a while, and when it was established that Celestina was the mother, a suggestion of incest could be inferred. It would certainly explain how some man ‘got at’ this young girl. But I’m not convinced. What do you think?

Then Celestina said that she paid for the little girl’s keep, five shillings a week, out of her earnings as a music teacher. We know she was a professional singer, or ‘vocalist’, so this is quite credible.

Except that, again after she made these claims on Monday 20th, the papers, including the Worcester Journal, three days later, had reported:

Celestina Sommer's confession, newspaper reportWhich is interesting. Celestina’s husband Charles Sommer said he was the one who paid for the child’s keep; he paid it willingly; and perhaps most interesting, it had been agreed before the marriage that he’d pay. Presumably this was a condition of his getting the wealthy silversmith’s daughter and a decent dowry, but who knows? I don’t think it was a love match, anyway.

The other important fact in the last newspaper report is that she and Charles quarrelled, and that she said this was the reason why she killed her daughter. Keep that in mind.

Statue of Richard Oastler, campaigner against child labour, and two children

Child labour, statue *

Going back to the Morning Post, though, Celestina Sommer also claimed that she ‘did not like to put the child out to service, for she was not old enough to work’. So much for getting her a place as a nursemaid or at a greengrocer’s. Celestina’s story was unravelling fast.

After PC Hone had finished giving his evidence, the hearing came to a quick end. Celestina’s ‘defence was reserved by Mr Humphreys, junior, who attended for her’. I take this to mean that he preferred not to speak to her defence until the next – and most important – trial.

William Corrie, the magistrate, then committed her to Newgate for trial, ‘upon the charge of having wilfully murdered Celestina Christmas, aged 10 years’. The witnesses were bound over to appear at the future trial and ‘the case, as far as this court was concerned, terminated’. There seems to be a sigh of relief implied in that last sentence. I imagine all at Clerkenwell police court were glad to have finished with this difficult case.

Once again, Celestina’s story raises almost as many questions as it answers. Why had Celestina behaved so strangely in the gaoler’s room? Why tell a different story from Charles’s about how much was paid for Celestina’s keep, and who paid it? Why say her brother was the father? Was she showing signs of mental illness? Deliberately? Or was she so distressed she hardly knew what she was saying? And how significant were those quarrels with her husband?

One thing’s for sure. She’d have been terrified as the van took her away to perhaps the most dreaded and notorious prison in London – Newgate.

* Picture credits:
Suffer the Little Children, photograph of statue of anti child labour campaigner Richard Oastler, Northgate, Bradford: Creative Commons, by Peter Hughes
Photograph of an older Samuel Phelps:  Jbarta, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 15 | Part 16

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The mob chases the witnesses: a Christmas tale pt 13

In the last post in this series, we looked at the inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas by her mother, held at the North Pole tavern on New North Rd. This time I’ll focus on what happened immediately afterwards: the mobbing of two witnesses.

Last time, I mentioned that the jury had no reported qualms about finding that Celestina Sommer, the murdered girl’s mother, had committed ‘wilful murder’. But others, onlookers or locals, disagreed.

As the Wiltshire Independent reported on 24 February 1856, four days after the inquest:

Newspaper report of an angry mob after the inquest into the murder of Celestina ChristmasRachel (or Rachael) Mount (or Munt) was the servant of Charles and Celestina Sommer who overheard the murder of Celestina Christmas, and Elizabeth, her sister, went with her the following day to report it to the police.

They were obviously seen as the star witnesses at the inquest, though the police were also present, as we’ll see.

Metropolitan police, 1860

Metropolitan policemen, 1860 *

What happened was this: after the inquest ended, the room at the North Pole was cleared.

Sergeant Edward Townsend, who was one of the two policemen who arrested the Sommers on Sunday, 19 February, had stayed in the pub, along with Sgt George Bexley, also of N (Islington) Division of the Metropolitan Police. Sgt Bexley was the one who’d found Celestina Sommer’s blood-spotted stockings hidden under her bed. Their evidence was obviously important, too.

‘Two or three persons’ rushed into the pub and ‘begged’ the policemen to help Rachel and Elizabeth Mount. The girls had been on their way to their home in Hoxton, just to the south over the Regent’s Canal, when they were ‘waylaid’ by a group of angry people.

The two sergeants hurried southwards down New North Rd, passing Linton St (where Celestina Sommer had lived) on their right.

Stanford's Library map, 1864, showing the escape of the Mount girls after the murder inquest

Stanford’s Library map, 1864 *

On the map on this page I’ve marked the pub with a pale blue dot and the first part of their route is shown by a pale blue arrow. 18 Linton St is where the red dot is.

It was only a short walk to the bridge over the canal. At the corner just before the bridge the policemen saw what they’d been called to sort out – ‘a mob of about 200 persons surrounding the house of Mr Hurd, a publican’ (shown in purple).

I did wonder if Mr Hurd might’ve been connected with the North Pole, but a crawl round some pub history websites (I’ve put links at the bottom) shows the publican in 1856 to be one J Thornett, and the outgoing licensee in 1857 as Alexander Young. So Mr Hurd’s profession could be just a coincidence.

So there they were, two peelers against an angry mob. It seems that they were able to get into Mr Hurd’s house, or at least to talk to someone inside it, because they found out that the girls were hiding there ‘for the purpose of avoiding the inexplicable fury of their assailants’.

The sergeants, ‘perceiving the females overwhelmed with alarm, and weeping’, did all they could to get the crowd to disperse. But it was no good – there they stayed, and it looked like stalemate. Luckily the house had a side door, which the mob didn’t seem to have found.

Somehow the peelers arranged for the Mount sisters to be smuggled out of this door unseen, and the terrified girls and two policemen scurried away along Arlington St, parallel to the canal, towards the bridge at the top of Shepherdess’s Walk, ‘a circuitous route to their home in Hoxton’. It’s shown with a purple arrow on the map.

For a few minutes it seemed that they’d got away, but the mob soon worked out the route they’d taken and chased down Arlington St after them, ‘yelling and hooting’.

London riot, 1851: policemen fight mob

London riot, 1851 *

Things got so heated that ‘the officers, on reaching the next bridge, situate close to the Block tavern, were compelled to make a stand in the narrow pathway…’

That bridge is shown on the map as the Islington Footpath Bridge (yellow dot) and the Block, renamed the ‘Blockmakers’ Arms’ and now converted to private flats, is just on the other side of the bridge (green dot). I’m sure a footbridge would’ve been narrow enough for the policemen to fend off the mob, at least for a while.

There’s no mention of them summoning help, though I’m sure they’d have whirled their rattles as they ran. Policemen didn’t get their iconic whistles until the 1880s. But it’s impossible that the noise of the ‘yelling, hooting’ crowd wouldn’t have drawn others, whether to join in, watch, or try to help the sergeants and the Mount girls.

So at or near the footbridge the officers decided to make their stand ‘and resist, with some violence, the efforts made to get at those under their protection.’

‘Some violence’. It looks as if they used their truncheons vigorously, and no doubt blows would have hit their reinforced top hats in return. Nothing’s said about injuries. But the stand-off had one sort-of-positive result: two ‘gentlemen’ came to the girls’ help. Presumably the Mounts were hiding behind the policemen and in the commotion each of the gentlemen ‘took one under his care’ and hurried them off in separate directions under cover of the flying truncheons.

There are two streets leading away from the footbridge, so it’s likely that one of the girls was taken down Eagle Wharf Rd and the other south along Shepherdess’s Walk.

‘And fortunately,’ says the Lloyd’s Weekly report, ‘thus the matter ended.’

This post’s almost ended, too. But it’s interesting that 200 or so people were so angry with the Mount sisters for giving evidence against Celestina Sommer that they’d chase them, presumably with a beating in mind.

Did they just dislike sneaks, snouts, grasses and other informers? Or were they sympathetic towards the woman who’d killed her illegitimate child, as so many others had done? Was it because she was young and pretty?


There’s plenty of evidence that ‘the most common form of female homicide, the killing of one’s own infant or young child, almost invariably drew pity’, as Martin J Wiener writes in Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy. But these children were usually babies or young children. Celestina Christmas was ten years old when her mother killed her.

Still, there was a widespread and growing unease about the idea of hanging women, and although infanticide was condemned, it was understandable for ‘unmarried young women who were facing lives of social disgrace and destitution, or married women acting incomprehensibly.’

I can write more about the dilemma of what to do about child-killing later, if you like. It’s relevant to Celestina Sommer’s story. Let me know if you’re interested, or if you have any thoughts about the mob and its ‘inexplicable fury’.

* Picture credits:
Stanford’s Library Map 1864: Mapco
Photograph of a group of Metropolitan Police, c 1860, via Epsom and Ewell History Explorer
Wiltshire Independent report: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1851 riot image: via Victorian London

Publican Directory 1856 and list of North Pole licencees: Pubs History. There are more pub tales here, in a post about Julia Harrington‘s future son-in-law, James Thomas Richards

Martin J Wiener’s Convicted Murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy can be downloaded (PDF) here

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

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The inquest in the pub: a Christmas tale pt 12

Where’s the obvious place for a Victorian coroner to hold an inquest into the cause of death of a murdered child?

The pub, of course.

Cruikshank cartoon, 1826: Inquest in a house (©Lewis Walpole Library, via London Lives)

Inquest in a house (©Lewis Walpole Library via London Lives)

No, really. It’s not as daft as it may seem. Some inquests into ‘suspicious’ deaths could be held in the building where the person died, but in 1860s London there wouldn’t have been many public places large enough to hold an inquest. As well as the coroner, there would be a twelve-man jury, one or more witnesses, perhaps a surgeon, and the hangers-on: the gentlemen of the press and the curious public.

A private room at a pub, inn or tavern was ideal. This building was one of the centres of local society, along with the church or chapel. Though easy access to beer, gin and tobacco might not have helped the sobriety of the proceedings.

As Charles Dickens, who’d been at an inquest and wasn’t unfamiliar with London crime, wrote in Bleak House: ‘The Coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive.’

Thomas Wakley holding an inquest (via The Lancet)

Thomas Wakley holding an inquest (via The Lancet)

The medical journalist and biographer Samuel Squire Sprigge had more to say: ‘The taint of the tavern-parlour vitiated the evidence, ruined the discretion of the jurors, and detracted from the dignity of the coroner. The solemnity of the occasion was too generally lightened by alcohol… where the majesty of death evaporated with the fumes from the gin of the jury.’

This description was of the sort of inquest which took place before the reforming influence of his subject, Thomas Wakley, who was the coroner for West Middlesex (which included Islington and Finsbury) as well as a founding editor of the medical journal The Lancet and an MP. Wakley’s a fascinating man, and might’ve been the coroner at the inquest into little Celestina Christmas’s murder… but on Wednesday, 20 February 1856, he was elsewhere and his deputy, George Smith Brent, was in charge of the event.

North Pole Tavern, near Linton St, shown on Weller's 1868 map. The inquest into Celestina Christmas's murder took place here

North Pole Tavern, near Linton St, 1868 map *

It was held four days after Celestina was murdered, and three days after her body was found. Inquests usually took place within 48 hours. With no refrigerated morgues, speed was necessary, but perhaps the kitchen at the Sommers’ house in Linton St, where the body was left, was cold enough in late February to stop too much decomposition. Let’s hope so for the sake of everyone involved.

The pub or inn chosen for an inquest was usually near where the death had taken place, and, as I’ve mentioned, it needed to have enough space for jury, witnesses and onlookers. Celestina’s inquest was held at the North Pole Tavern, 188-90 New North Rd, just round the corner from Linton St. On the 1868 map on the right I’ve marked the pub in blue, and 18 Linton St in red.

I’d have liked to visit it to get an idea of the size of the place (honest! No other reason!) but at the time I’m writing this it’s being refurbished. From photos I’ve seen of the inside it certainly looks large enough.

The North Pole © David Anstiss, Creative Commons licence

The North Pole © David Anstiss *

But before the inquest took place, something very important had happened.

Celestina Sommer had confessed to the murder.

I haven’t been able to work out from the newspaper reports exactly when she confessed, but it seems to have been after the police went with her husband, Charles Sommer, and my ancestor Julia Harrington to see poor little Celestina Christmas’s body at Linton St. Once the body’d been identified, there was very little reason to pretend that it was an unknown child’s.

Celestina also confessed that she’d used a knife to cut her daughter’s throat; but the police hadn’t been able to find it yet. There seems to be some mystery or significance attached to the murder weapon apart from its importance as evidence.

The inquest itself seems to have been straightforward, with no special pleading from the jury as there had been in Mary McNeil’s case (which I looked at two posts ago). There was little fuss in the newspapers. Here’s the Wiltshire Independent:

Coroner's inquest into the murder of Celestina Christmas: newspaper report

With such a verdict, the coroner’s only option was to make out a warrant for her to be committed to Newgate Prison to await her trial.

There’s one more thing to mention before I end this post.

Although the jury at the inquest didn’t seem to show any sympathy for Celestina Sommer, the crowd of spectators did. Spectacularly. I’ll write about that next time.

This post is long enough already, and I could’ve written so much more. But if you’re interested in more information about the history of coroners’ inquests in the mid-19th century, and indeed Victorian crime, here’s some further reading:

London Lives – a wonderful website, full of fascinating facts about crime in the capital
Coroners in North London
Coroners’ registers for early 1856 (TMA)
LMA‘s leaflet 41, Coroners’ records for London and Middlesex and their Register of inquests held by coroner for Western District, Middlesex (downloadable PDFs. I can’t link to them but just do a search)
Getting Away with Murder? Homicide and the Coroners in Nineteenth-Century London Mary Beth Emmerichs
Bodies of Evidence: Medicine and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830-1926
  Ian A Burney
Medical Legal Aspects of Medical Records Patricia W Iyer, Barbara J Levin, Mary Ann Shea
The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play James C Whort
Reading Constellations: Urban Modernity in Victorian Fiction Patricia McKee
And two blog posts: the fabby London Historians’ Blog and Coroners vs Police on Victorian Detectives

* Picture credits:
Weller’s 1868 map of Linton St and the North Pole: Mapco
Photograph of the North Pole: © David Anstiss and licenced for re-use under this Creative Commons licence
Morning Post report: The British Library Board, via Findmypast

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11  Part 12


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A Christmas bonus

In my last post about the murder of Celestina Christmas and the story behind it, we visited Murray Street (now Grove) where Mary McNeil killed her children.

Murray Grove road signAnd over on the Worldwide Genealogy blog, I posted about how I tracked down the two houses, nos 16 and 17, which feature in the story. Here’s a map from 1867, showing them and the two streets nearby which still have houses from the 1850s:

Map of Murray Grove (formerly Murray St) and the area nearby

Murray St (blue), nos 16 and 17 in green and red. Vaughan Terrace is purple, Edward St is yellow *

The houses don’t exist any more, but as a bonus while I work on the next instalment of the story, when we return to Celestina and the murder, here are some photos I’ve taken from just round the corner from Murray Grove, which will give you an idea of what 16 and 17 might’ve looked like. The first is in Shepherdess Walk, which was then called Vaughan Terrace, and I’ve marked the stretch of houses in the photo in purple on the map above:

Shepherdess Walk (was Vaughan Terrace), © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015 Here’s another, this time from Micawber St, called Edward St in the 1850s. You can see the houses are a little plainer, perhaps because they’re on a side street. I’ve marked the ones in the photo in yellow on the map:

Micawber St (was Edward St), © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015I hope this gives you an idea of the sort of houses Celestina Sommer would’ve known in Murray Grove in 1856. You can compare them to her home in Linton St here.

* Picture credits:
Kelly’s 1857 map of Murray St and the surrounding area: Mapco
Photographs of Shepherdess Walk and Micawber St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute it, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11

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Another murder: a Christmas tale pt 11

Could Celestina Sommer have been inspired to cut her daughter’s throat by another child murder? I believe that it’s at least possible.

In the last episode of this story, I mentioned that the two policemen, Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend, and Celestina’s husband Charles Sommer went to see her sister, Elizabeth Grobe.

This was still on Monday, 18 February, 1856, the day Charles and Celestina Sommer were charged at Clerkenwell Police Court. They’d just been to see my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, who’d brought up little Celestina Christmas from birth.

But what I’m looking at today is almost a throwaway comment. Here it is, from the Reading Mercury of 23 February:

Newspaper report on a visit to Murray St during the investigation into the murder of Celestina ChristmasElizabeth and Charles Grobe lived at 16 Murray Street, now called Murray Grove. Next door to them, at no 17, another murder had been committed. Mary McNeil (McNeill, M’Neil in some newspapers) had cut the throats of her two illegitimate sons. Well, OK, you may say, that was a sad and not uncommon crime in Victorian days.

But here’s some more information about the McNeil murder, from the Morning Chronicle of 1 December, 1855:

Morning Chronicle report of Mary McNeil being charged for child murderHere we have ‘intense and painful’ excitement outside the police court as a well dressed, attractive woman is charged with killing two of her children (one was in the country at the time).

As Lloyd’s Weekly said on the following day:

Lloyd's Weekly report about Mary McNeil, who killed her childrenA respectable, genteel person of 25, mother of illegitimate children, who cut their throats with a razor. Is this beginning to look familiar?

1861 map of Murray St and Linton St

Linton St (top left) and Murray St (bottom right) in 1861 *

The news of the McNeil murder was widely reported in the newspapers. It would’ve been the talk of the area, and Murray St was fairly near Linton St, where the Sommers lived.

I’ve shown them on this 1861 map, with Linton St in pale blue at the top left and nos 16 (green) and 17 (red) Murray St bottom right.

And it’s inconceivable that members of the Christmas family, including the elder Celestina, wouldn’t have spoken and thought about a murder which was committed next to where one of them lived.

But you’re canny readers and that’s not enough to convince you that this murder could have any connection with the cutting of little Celestina Christmas’s throat by her own mother. Me neither, until I read more about the McNeil murder case.

Murray Street (Grove) now. © Frances Owen 2015

Murray St (Grove). Nos 16 and 17 were just beyond where the orange-lidded bins are in this photo. © Frances Owen 2015

Briefly, what happened was that Mary McNeil was the mistress of a man who was the father of her three young children. He provided them with enough money to live comfortably. However after the birth of her last child, Mary changed. She was ‘wretched and miserable’, hit her children, and complained that they had no decent clothes to wear. Her lover, James Williams, had taken one of the children away after she’d threatened to harm it.

At the time, people said that she had ‘milk fever’, which is actually a term for mastitis. These days, I imagine, we’d describe what she suffered from as postnatal depression.

On November 29, 1855, Mary’s upstairs neighbour found a cash box on the kitchen stairs, partly covered by a gown. It belonged to Mary, and the neighbour took it to her door, but when he went to give it back to her he saw her baby son ‘lying on the bed… with its throat cut and in a pool of blood.’ He dropped the box and fetched a policeman, who found the four-year-old boy also dead, his throat slit ‘from ear to ear’. By his head lay the razor Mary’d used to kill the boys.

Mary was sitting, ‘rocking herself to and fro’ and wailing “oh, what have I done?” She admitted the murder. The Bath Chronicle added this odd remark about the cash box:

Newspaper report about Mary McNeilDuring the court proceedings that followed, her mental health was mentioned several times. Interestingly, the jury at the coroner’s inquest was very concerned about it. Here’s The Era, published on 9 December:

Coroner's inquest about Mary McNeil's murder of her childrenIt continues:

The Mary McNeil inquest continuedI’ve no idea whether the cash box has any echoes in Celestina’s locked box with three clasps, which her servant Rachel Mount thought important enough to mention, or whether Celestina’s bizarre behaviour in wearing bloodstained clothes after she’d murdered her daughter is connected with Mary McNeil’s story in any way. But they’re more odd coincidences.

The emphasis on Mary McNeil’s mental state at the time she killed her children is much more obviously relevant. In spite of the awfulness of what Mary had done, there seemed to be a feeling of sympathy for her, and a reluctance to find her guilty. And this, I think, is the important point.

Mary McNeil was tried for wilful murder at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) on Wednesday, 9 January, 1856. The prison surgeon, John Rowland Gibson, testified: “my opinion decidedly is, that she was of unsound mind at the time she committed the act.”

Mary’s mother confirmed that her husband, Mary’s father, “was sent to a lunatic asylum in consequence of his deranged state of mind—he was taken to Grove-hall Institution, and from there was removed to Bethlehem Hospital.”

And the court found her ‘Not guilty, being insane. To be detained until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’ Two other women were acquitted of murdering their children on the same day.

The Mary McNeil inquest continued

Mary McNeil and two other women acquitted of murder – Wells Journal report

Celestina’s behaviour has already been seen to be unexpected at times. In the eyes of Victorian society, for a respectable young unmarried girl to become pregnant was surely a sign of something wrong with her. Daughters were locked away in asylums for it. And as you’ll see in another post, Celestina was to act in a very bizarre way after her arrest.

Is it possible that she read about Mary McNeil’s sentence and thought that she had found a way to get rid of the unwanted child who she claimed was telling lies about her and causing quarrels between her and her husband?

The facts are these: on Wednesday, 9 January, 1856, Mary McNeil, next door neighbour of Celestina’s sister, was acquitted of murdering her illegitimate sons by cutting their throats. The newspapers reported the verdict widely over the next few days.

On Thursday, 7 February, Celestina Sommer took her illegitimate daughter away from Julia Harrington’s house, telling Julia that she’d found the girl a place to work – though this wasn’t true. On Saturday, 16 February, she cut Celestina Christmas’s throat.

If it’s a coincidence, it’s a very creepy one. What do you think?

I’ve written about my quest to find where 16 and 17 Murray St were over on the Worldwide Genealogy blog. I’ve also added another post here, which will give you an idea of what 16 and 17 might’ve looked like.

* Picture credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Cross’s 1861 map of Murray St and Linton St: Mapco
Photograph of Murray Grove: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use it that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute it, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19



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Julia Harrington’s evidence: a Christmas tale pt 10

Julia Harrington, wife of Thomas and mother of Catharine, Hannah and of my 2x great-grandmother Rebecca Harrington, was about to have a terrible shock.

Old map of Peter St in 1857 (green), just off Hackney Rd (yellow). Their last house is marked blue

Peter St in 1857 (green), just off Hackney Rd (yellow). The Harringtons’ previous house is marked blue *

It was Monday, 18 February, 1856, the day Charles and Celestina Sommer were charged at Clerkenwell Police Court.

In the Harringtons’ house at 4 Peter Street, Bethnal Green, Julia would’ve been busy, cleaning, tidying or preparing a meal for when Thomas, a dock labourer, got back from work.

Theirs was a newly-built house, and Julia must’ve felt very lucky to be in one of the few in the area with water closets. Hygienic, dry, small (in the 1861 census only three people were listed at the address), it would show that the Harringtons weren’t doing too badly these days.

I imagine Hannah, aged 20, and Rebecca, 14, helping their mother while there was still daylight. It’s possible that Hannah was working outside the home, most likely as a servant, but I’ve found no evidence to show what she did during the day.

There were missing family members, though; Catharine, known as Kate, had married Henry Thomas Drew and was living nearby with him and her 19-month-old son, Harry. And there was little Celestina Christmas, who’d lived with them since her birth just over 10 years earlier. Until she had been taken away by her mother, Celestina Sommer, a few days ago.

1850s Peeler (policeman) like the ones who found Celestina's body

1850s policeman *

Then, in the early afternoon, came the knock. “Police! Open the door!” Not, perhaps, the most welcome of sounds for an East End family. Had Thomas been injured at the docks? Or caught doing a bit of black market work?

But it got worse. When Inspector Hatton and Sergeant Edward Townsend of the Metropolitan Police’s N Division came in, stovepipe hats tall under the low ceiling, and began to question Julia about little Celestina, the terrible truth would soon have become obvious.

The policemen were accompanied by the now freed Charles Sommer, and had come straight from Clerkenwell court.

The newspapers – by now the Standard had lost its exclusive coverage and the story was being picked up by the press as far away as Inverness – printed various versions of what happened next. I’ll use the most coherent ones here.

As the Leeds Mercury says:

Leeds Mercury newspaper report of the police visit to Julia Harrington

And elderly woman? The cheek! Julia was born around 1808, so she’d only have been 47 or so. But putting that aside, two interesting pieces of information come up here. The paper reports that the murdered child was the illegitimate child of either Celestina Sommer – or her brother. Most papers have her as the older Celestina’s child, which is correct. I may go back to why the confusion arose, if you’re interested. Let me know in the comments below!

The other statement is that little Celestina was 10, not 14 as the Standard had reported, and had been ‘under the protection of Mrs Harrington nearly from its birth’.

The papers do tend to refer to the girl as ‘it’, which seems to have been the 19th century way for a child, even though at the age of 10 she had been not far off puberty and definite femaleness. Indeed the age of consent in the 1850s was 12, shockingly to us now.

I’ve already mentioned that little Celestina was probably ‘under Julia Harrington’s protection’ since her birth. A look at a copy of her birth certificate shows that the baby was born at 1 Grove Lane, where the Harringtons had been living from at least the time of the 1841 census.(Grove Lane was, as I’ve mentioned, once called Cut Throat Lane, a creepy foreshadowing of her fate.)

Copy of Celestina Christmas's birth certificateAnd it was Julia who reported the birth, as the ‘occupier of the house’. So baby Celestina had been born at the Harringtons’ house (perhaps Julia helped with the birth?) and lived with them for the 10 years of her short life. Blood ties apart, she was part of the family.

Except, of course, that she was in effect a paying guest. Celestina Sommer was paying 10/- a month towards her keep. That’s 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) a week, which, calculated using the Retail Price Index, is worth about £10.43 today. It’s not a huge amount, but I expect the Harringtons lived fairly frugally and Celestina’s keep would only involve adding more food and some linen to the family budget. She wasn’t undernourished, we can imagine, if she’d been taken for a girl of about 14 by the police who found her body.

The Chelmsford Chronicle goes on with the story. The two policemen, with Charles Sommer, took Julia to Linton Street:

Chelmsford Chronicle repoert of Julia Harrington's distress at seeing Celestina's bodyPoor Julia. Imagine the horror of seeing her little charge lying dead, the victim of murder. I hope the police had thought to cover the throat wound.

And how she must’ve blamed herself for letting the elder Celestina take her away. The Leeds Mercury report went on to say that Julia’d heard nothing from, or about, the girl since her mother took her. I’m sure Julia was agonising over not trying to find out what had happened to her.

Penny Blood illustration: a woman dressed in black takes a little girl away from a weeping womanBut what could Julia have done? It was little Celestina’s mother who took the girl away. She’d said she couldn’t afford to pay the 2/6 a week any more. Julia’d had no right to stop her. Not that that would help with her grief now. And her name was now in the papers, linked with a sensational crime. Even if people who knew her couldn’t read, word would get round. Her troubles had probably only just begun.

Something happened between the time the police arrived at Peter St and their taking Julia to see Celestina’s body in the Linton St house. The three men went to see Elizabeth Grobe, Celestina Sommer’s sister. It throws a sinister but fascinating light on a possible reason why the little girl was murdered. I’ll come to that next time.

But for now, I have a question for you: are you interested in more of this Victorian murder story? I’ve got to the part where my family’s involved. Do you want more, or would you rather stop reading the Celestina saga and go back to more conventional genealogy?

* Picture credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Kelly’s Post Office Directory of London 1857 via Mapco
1850s peeler: Hoodinski, via Wikimedia (public domain)
Penny blood illustration: The Mysteries of London, via bl.uk

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 11

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Who killed Celestina? A Christmas tale pt 9

So far, at the lengthy procedures at Clerkenwell Police Court, the evidence against Charles and Celestina Sommer given on Monday, 18 February, 1856, has covered the arrest of the couple for the murder of little Celestina Christmas and the witness statement of their servant, Rachel Mount (Mont, Munt).

Now, in the last part of the Standard newspaper report (do I hear a sigh of relief?), the court turned to the medical evidence.

Mr George William Henry Coward, N (Islington) Division’s surgeon, told his audience that he’d gone to the cellar at 18 Linton St and looked at the body:

Surgeon's report on the body of Celestina ChristmasIt seems like a frenzied attack, with much more violence than would’ve been needed to kill a young girl.

1850s women's stockings

1850s stockings *

Sgt George Bexley of N Division then took the stand. He said that he’d searched the first-floor bedroom at 18 Linton St. Under the bed he’d found a pair of stockings, which were now shown to the court.

I imagine there was a double frisson – not just women’s undergarments, but a murderess’s undergarments.

There were spots of blood on one of them, and – damning evidence – the stockings were marked with the letters CC, the initials of Celestina Sommer’s maiden name, which was the same as her murdered daughter’s – Celestina Christmas.

He also found spots of blood on Rachel Mount’s pillow in the kitchen.

The next witness was Rebecca Donnelly, the searcher at Hoxton police station, where the Sommers had been taken after they were arrested. She told the court:

The searcher's report - the murder of Celestina Christmas

First Celestina’s stockings, now her petticoat. How titillating for the court, how humiliating for her. Still, they were evidence. But perhaps the most important piece of evidence was missing.

Inspector Payne of N Division then stepped forwards to say that he had also searched the house, but “could not discover the knife or any weapon with which the wounds were inflicted.”

Are you as puzzled as I  am about this evidence? First the wild attack on poor little Celestina Christmas, with three attempts to cut her throat. It seems like the action of someone in a fury, not the calculated killing you’d expect. (Since I wrote this, the excellent blogger Pauleen Cass of Cassmob has suggested that the stabbing could reflect “ineptitude or ambivalence rather than fury”, which is a very good point.) Certainly these are the actions of somebody who’s in distress or out of control.

Coal hole cover plate, London pavement

London coal hole cover plate *

Then Celestina Sommer seems not to have made much of an attempt to hide the evidence of her crime, except rather pathetically stowing her stockings under the bed. It’s extraordinary that she was still wearing the bloodstained petticoat. And as for trying to pass the blood off as a nosebleed…

Did she think nobody would notice the blood spots, even the body? Perhaps she thought that if she pretended it wasn’t there it would go away. She doesn’t seem to have thought up much of a defence. That an unknown person would dump a child’s corpse through a coal hole, randomly, isn’t convincing.

And yet – the murder weapon was missing. Of all the evidence, you’d think that would be found. Rachel made no mention of it in her statement, either. Very curious.

The hearing ended with a quick wrap-up. The magistrate, William Corrie, said that “there were no grounds for the detention of the male, but he should remand the female till Monday next.”

He then bound the witnesses over to give evidence against Celestina at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) on the charge of wilful murder. At this Celestina, who had been allowed to sit throughout the proceedings, ‘appeared to become faint, and leaned her head upon the front of the bar.’

Charles Sommer was freed. His wife was taken to the courthouse gaoler’s room and later ‘conveyed in the police van to the house of detention’.

The newspaper report ends with the remark that ‘Mr C Albert, the interpreter… attended to watch the case’. No more explanation is given, so was he there in case Charles, who was German, needed help in understanding the proceedings? Or was he not used because Charles had kept silent? I hadn’t considered the possibility of Charles not speaking English well until now.

So many questions, yet again… but at least one answer is clear. It was Celestina Sommer who killed the girl, who hadn’t yet been named. There was still some doubt over the victim’s identity, but it’ll be cleared up in the next episode, which also introduces my 3x great grandmother, Julia Harrington, to the delights of a murder investigation and newspaper reporters.

Until then here’s another basement in Linton St for you.

Basement area, Linton St © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand 2015

Basement area, Linton St *

* Picture credits:

Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
1850s stockings: Metropolitan Museum of Art via London Street Views
Coal hole cover plate: Mark.murphy, Creative Commons
Photograph of Linton St: © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2015. If anyone wants to re-use them that’s fine, if you ask me first! And attribute them, with a link, please. See copyright policy in the right-hand side bar

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 10 | Part 11

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